Spotlight Exclusives

The Greatest Equalizer for Pell Students? Completing College.

Wesley Whistle and Andrew Howard Nichols, PhD Wesley Whistle and Andrew Howard Nichols, PhD, posted on

Since 1972, the Pell Grant has been the federal government’s primary financial tool to help low- and moderate-income students attend college. Taxpayers have long supported investments in this program because higher levels of education not only have widespread benefits that improve our society but more education also promotes socioeconomic mobility for those of us who grow up in families with limited financial means. If students attend college and complete their degree, they are more likely to earn higher wages as well as have more opportunity and security in the labor market. We know that for low-income students to reap these rewards, it is critical that they don’t just start a degree but complete it.

For the first time ever, the U.S. Department of Education released public data last fall on the graduation rates of first-time, full-time students receiving Pell Grants at individual colleges and universities. When Third Way looked at this data, it showed that these students have less than a 50:50 shot at graduation and that 47 percent of four-year schools graduate fewer than half of their Pell students. The data also showed a gap of 18 percentage points between Pell and non-Pell students with even greater disparities at some individual institutions.

For those low-income students attending institutions with abysmal graduation rates, the chances of successfully climbing up the socioeconomic ladder is unlikely. Too many of these institutions leave the students they serve with no degree and significant amounts of debt that they are unable to repay. While education can be the equalizer for many, our higher education system often fails to serve those who need it most, exacerbating inequality by leaving too many students worse off than when they started.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We know there are institutions doing a good job at serving these students. Using the Education Trust’s College Results data tool, we were able to identify two notable examples– The College at Brockport and The University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point – of institutions that graduate Pell Grant recipients at higher rates than other colleges and universities that serve comparable students.

The College at Brockport, which is part of the State University of New York system, has a 63.4 percent graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients. By comparison, one of its peers with significant room for improvement is the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Their Pell graduation rate is 46.6 percent. This 17 percentage point difference in completion between Brockport and UMass Dartmouth is difficult to explain since the campuses are fairly similar at first glance. Both are public colleges with comparable enrollments whose students – on average – have similar standardized tests scores. Moreover, the campuses are serving students with similar levels of financial need, with roughly 40 percent of undergraduates on both campuses receiving Pell Grants. Institutional resources don’t seem to be the cause either, as UMass Dartmouth has a larger endowment and more per student spending.

The University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point similarly outperforms its peers. For example, its Pell graduation rate of nearly 60 percent is more than double that of Saginaw Valley State in Michigan where only 28 percent of students receiving a Pell Grant earn a degree. The low completion rate for Pell Grant recipients at Saginaw Valley State is especially problematic given that students who don’t receive Pell graduate at a rate that is 18.5 percentage points higher (46.5 percent). Again, the difference in Pell completion rates at both institutions isn’t because they serve different types of students. Both public institutions enroll students with similar standardized test scores

These examples clearly demonstrate that similar colleges can have very different outcomes for students and completion rates aren’t simply a byproduct of how “talented” or academically prepared students are. In fact, these comparisons suggest that what institutions do with (and for) the students they serve can make a considerable difference. Institutions have the power to improve the lives of their students if they prioritize their success and focus on achieving better outcomes. Institutions should take a hard look at their own equity gaps and figure out ways to better assist low-income students.

What are the institutions with higher graduation rates doing right? Every college is different; there is no magic solution. But when we ask them why they think they’re as successful as they are, college and university leaders often point to making student success an institutional priority, from leadership to front-line staff and faculty; collecting and analyzing data to understand which students are at risk of getting off course, and why; and using that data to design and implement personalized interventions that help students succeed academically, socially, and financially. In short: leadership, data, and targeted supports.

As Congress approaches the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, policymakers must also make equity a priority and ensure that federal policy is focused on completion and student success—especially for underrepresented students who need mobility the most. This could mean targeting additional resources and support towards schools that serve a high percentage of Pell students, holding institutions accountable for enrolling and graduating historically underrepresented students, rewarding institutions that show progress on measures of access and success, and enforcing meaningful consequences for those that, after receiving the time and resources necessary to improve, still fail to move the needle.

The recent data makes clear the shortcomings in how colleges and universities are currently serving Pell students, but it also points towards potential opportunities and best practices to rectify these disparities. If our country is serious about overcoming poverty, getting low-income students to graduation must be a priority.

Wesley Whistle is the Education Policy Advisor at Third Way. You can read more of his work here and follow up on Twitter at @WesleyWhistle. Andrew Howard Nichols, PhD, is the Senior Director of Higher Education Research and Data Analytics at The Education Trust. You can read more of his work here and follow up on Twitter at @DrAndrewNichols.

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