She was in the second semester of her freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley, when Monica Mata started to worry she might never make it to graduation.
But Mata managed to overcome academic struggles and personal challenges to reach her junior year, and now she’s confident she’ll graduate, thanks in part to help from a federal Pell grant based on her family’s low income. If she does get to the finish line, she will avoid the fate of a huge proportion of her fellow recipients of federal Pell grants.
A Hechinger Report analysis of Pell grant graduation rate data from a cross-section of colleges and universities — which is not otherwise publicly reported anywhere — suggests that billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded Pell grants nationwide go to students who never earn degrees. And while some schools with large numbers of Pell recipients have strong graduation rates for those students, the ones receiving the biggest share of the money often do not.
The government itself does not collect this data, meaning that, since 2000, taxpayers have spent $300 billion on Pell grants — the nation’s single most expensive education program, awarded based on family earnings to help low-income students get access to higher education — with no way of knowing how many of the recipients ever actually earned degrees.
In a quirk of federal policy, individual institutions do have to disclose the graduation rates of their students who receive Pell grants, when asked. And while some resisted doing so, or released them only in response to public-record requests, the Hechinger analysis of 32 of the largest private and 50 of the largest public universities — and tens of thousands of Pell grant students — shows that more than a third of Pell recipients at those schools hadn’t earned degrees even after six years.
“We’re talking huge amounts of money and huge numbers of people,” said Richard Vedder, an economist and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
Pell grants cost taxpayers $31.4 billion in fiscal year 2015, more than double what was spent on them in 2007. Since then, the maximum award has increased by more than $1,200 per student per year and the number of students applying for the grants is up by 7 million.
The program has grown so fast that Republicans have proposed freezing the maximum annual Pell award at the current $5,775 for the next 10 years. The money given to the students first goes to the college to pay tuition and fees, and anything left over can be used for books and living expenses. Unlike loans, Pell grants do not have to be repaid, whether or not a student ever graduates.
Most recipients of Pell grants come from families earning less than $40,000 a year.
In January 2014, Congress gave the Department of Education 120 days to produce, for the first time, Pell grant graduation rates for every university and college in the country. The department finally released the months-overdue report in November, but did not break down the information by institution, citing problems with the data, and was only able to analyze 70% of Pell recipients. Only 39% of the 1.7 million students in its sample earned a bachelor’s degree in six years.
But every college should already know Pell grant graduation rates. The 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act requires them to tell prospective students the graduation rates of Pell recipients if asked, but does not require that they give those figures to the U.S. Department of Education. The federal education data system has no plans to collect the information from schools, and does not enforce the disclosure mandate.
“I don’t think that anybody has checked on whether [the schools] are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. That’s partly why these policies don’t work,” said Andrew Kelly, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who co-authored a 2011 study that found just a quarter of a randomly selected group of 150 schools provided their Pell grant graduation rates when asked.
When the Hechinger Report asked the nation’s 50 largest public and 50 largest private colleges and universities for the data, several private universities repeatedly ignored the requests; 32 ultimately responded. One, the University of Dayton refused to disclose the figure on the grounds that the request came from a media outlet and not a student.
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