But college officials say the changes, which include a lower income cap to guarantee eligibility, fewer semesters of eligibility, and elimination of summer grants, will deny some of the most vulnerable students the chance to finish college.
"We are seeing more and more students coming to us with a lot of financial stress, many of them not qualifying for Pell grants," said Karen A. Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College, where overall enrollment dipped 2 percent last fall. "It seems like they're shutting out more and more community college students from eligibility."
At her college, about 400 students, or 10 percent of those who typically qualify for a Pell, got a smaller grant last fall or no aid as a result of the income-rule change, Stout said. An additional 35 were affected by the other changes.
Montgomery County, Philadelphia, and other colleges are raising private donations and using institutional aid to help students bridge the gap.
Taj A. Meyer, 27, was able to attend CCP last summer on a scholarship the college created with private donations. She's now on the premed track at Bryn Mawr College, and credits her experience at the community college with giving her a strong foundation in the sciences.
She was disheartened to hear about Pell cuts.
"It seems like one of the most challenging aspects by far of going back to school is the financial hoops one needs to jump through to actually make it work," said Meyer, who financed her education with the help of Pell grants. "In academia, not everyone's journey is the same, but it doesn't mean it's not important."
Nationally, 3.35 million students attending two-year colleges in 2011-12 received $11.2 billion in Pell funds, said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.
Enrollment at community colleges nationally dropped 3.1 percent in the fall of 2012, he said.
"We think the change in financial aid is very likely one of the factors," Baime said.
A slightly improved economy and a reduction in high school graduates also could be contributing to the dip, he said.
The changes in Pell eligibility eventually could affect four-year colleges, such as Temple University, with a lot of Pell grant recipients. More than a third of Temple undergraduates received grants last year. Grants range from the program minimum of $555 to the maximum of $5,500.
One change reduces lifetime available aid from 18 semesters to 12.
"This means eligible students have less time to complete their degree while benefiting from a Pell grant," said Craig Fennell, director of student financial services.
If they spend a lot of time at community college, that could become problematic, he said.
Temple will look this semester at how many students are losing aid or are in danger of it because of the changes, Fennell said.
"Student loan borrowing is already at record high levels," he said. "The loss or reduction of Pell grant eligibility will force many low income students to borrow a larger amount. ..."
Community colleges are likely to be hit particularly hard because of the compositions of their student bodies. At CCP, more than half - nearly 16,000 students - received $47.7 million in Pell grants last year, said president Stephen M. Curtis.
He noted the concentration of part-time and low income students, those in need of remedial courses, and the high percentage of students first in their family to attend college.
"You don't see that everywhere, or at least not that whole combination of things," he said.
Curtis said he was not sure how much of the enrollment drop is due to Pell changes. The college last month sent letters to 516 students, notifying them they were not eligible for Pell for the spring.
Spring enrollment is running 4 percent lower than last spring's.
The college has heightened efforts, he said, to educate students about efficiency and financial planning.
"It's not like the old days, where you can try five different majors to figure out which is going to work best for you," he said, "because the more you do that, the more aid eligibility you're using up for when you go to the next step to finish the bachelor's degree."
He noted that almost a third of the students come to his college already having been somewhere else where they likely used up some eligibility.
Delaware County Community College saw about 500 students lose part or all of a Pell grant because they had exceeded the number of usable semesters, said Ray Toole, director of financial aid. More than 400 of them did not enroll, though there's no way of knowing the exact reason, he said. An additional 70 were affected by the income-rule change, he said.
Delaware County's enrollment, just under 14,000, was flat for the fall and is expected to be down from 2 to 4 percent this spring.
Like some other colleges, Delaware County is boosting programs to help students finish their degrees on time and get more counseling about financial aid.
At Peirce College, which caters to working adults, 51 percent of the 2,800 students get Pells, said president James J. Mergiotti. About 100 lost the grant because of the reduced semester eligibility, he said. Peirce gave some institutional aid and others obtained personal loans to continue, he said.
"I wish the policymakers had focused more on the working adult population," he said. "They're working their educational goals into other goals they have and often have to do that on a part-time basis."
Tyease Chesson, 25, a senior networking major at Peirce, lost his eligibility for the spring semester. He had been in school part-time for eight years and attended two other colleges before coming to Peirce.
"I thought maybe everything I worked for might go completely out of the door overnight," he said.
But the college gave him a $1,600 grant and helped him find a part-time job in the Philadelphia School District. And he stayed on track to graduate this June.
Community College of Philadelphia has been one of the strongest national voices in support of Pell grants. The college made thousands of "Save Pell" buttons to pass out at national meetings.
It also sponsored a "Speak up for Pell contest" in which students created videos for YouTube.
For her winning video, Kerrie Trube, 32, of South Philadelphia, played her guitar and told how the Pell grant funded her entire associate's degree in behavioral health and human services. She went to school part-time so she could continue to work. But now she won't have enough eligibility left to get aid to complete her bachelor's degree.
"Without having the Pell grant money, I don't know if I'm going to be able to afford it," said Trube, who hopes to become a drug and alcohol counselor, having battled drug abuse herself.
The Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges is collecting information from members on the impact of Pell changes, said Diane Bosak, executive director. The colleges collectively had a small enrollment drop last fall, but she said she was unsure of the cause.
Nevertheless, "any erosion in Pell is a big concern to us because so many of our students are Pell recipients," she said.
Enrollment at New Jersey community colleges fell 2.5 percent in the fall, said Lawrence Nespoli, president of the state's Council of County Colleges.
"It's probably a fair assumption that these changes explain at least part of the enrollment decline," Nespoli said.
Some county colleges, such as Burlington and Gloucester, say they've noticed no significant impact.
At Camden County College, fewer than 100 students lost eligibility because of the semester reduction and fewer than that as a result of other changes, officials said. But they don't expect enrollment to drop.
Bucks County Community College isn't sure of the impact but expects to know more at the end of the semester, said Barbara Yetman, vice president of student affairs.
At Montgomery County, Stout said she suspects the fall enrollment drop is tied to students' inability to pay, whether through lack of a Pell grant or other hardship.
The school worked hard in the fall to keep students enrolled and anticipates a slight increase in spring enrollment.
"We've been trying to reach out to students to help them get emergency loans," she said, "and do what we can in a very proactive way."
Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq