Success of Pell Grant Students Dependent on Individual Schools, Study Shows

A new report — published by civil rights education advocacy organization The Education Trust — reveals that the average graduation gap between students who receive federal Pell grants and those who don’t is significantly less than the national gap when measured at the individual college level.

The report, titled The Pell Partnership: Ensuring Shared Responsibility for Low-Income Student Success, sheds light on questions of whether taxpayer dollars are being wasted on low-income students who may not end up completing college. It also points out that individual schools can have a large effect on the graduation outcomes of students who receive Pell grants.

The report specifically showed that the graduation rate for Pell grant recipients is 51 percent compared to 65 percent for non-Pell students — a 14-point gap. However, for students who attend the same institution, the average gap between those who receive Pell grants and those who don’t is much smaller, at 5.7 percent.

These findings provide evidence of colleges doing a poor job helping low-income students graduate, as well as high numbers of Pell students enrolling at colleges with low graduation rates.

“By closing existing gaps at the college level, especially the egregiously large gaps that exist in about one-third of four-year institutions, we can cut that gap in half,” author of the report Andrew Nichols told U.S. News & World Report. “To go the remaining distance, though, we’ll have to take on the even more challenging matter of enrollment stratification, because where Pell students do and don’t enroll matters quite a bit.”

Nichols, who is also director of higher education research and data analytics for Ed Trust, said that students who don’t need federal assistance are much more likely to attend selective institutions.

Based on a yearlong analysis of Pell graduation rate data for 1,149 four-year public and private nonprofit colleges and universities, the report goes beyond its findings to make recommendations. Nichols advises colleges and universities to evaluate current support systems available to their low-income students and increase their efforts to help them graduate.

Each year, more than $31.5 billion in tuition assistance is provided to more than 8.6 million low-income students. The release of this report coincides with negotiations by Congress for another stopgap funding measure ahead of the new fiscal year and at a time when Congress is considering rewriting the Higher Education Act — the federal higher education law that includes the entire federal student loan system, including Pell grants.

While the Pell grant program has escaped funding cuts in the past, it may become a target in this latest round of cuts because of its extraordinary costs — which are dictated by the number of students who apply and qualify for the grant.