How Many Pell Grant Recipients Are Actually Graduating?

How Many Pell Grant Recipients Are Actually Graduating?

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(Image: Thinkstock)

Several public universities required formal public-records requests; one, the University of Texas at Austin, charged $54 for the information. (Its six-year graduation rate for Pell recipients was 45.4%.)

Of those schools that did respond, the average six-year graduation rate for all students was 70%, higher than the national average of 59%. For Pell grant recipients, the graduation rate was 66%. The more Pell students an institution enrolls, these statistics show, the lower their likelihood of graduating.

Of the six schools in our sample with more than half of the student body receiving Pell grants, the highest graduation rate for those students in six years was 57%, at Georgia State University. By contrast, of the eight schools where Pell students made up only 15% of the student body, the lowest graduation rate was 77% at the University of Maryland College Park.

There are many reasons students who receive Pell grants never finish. At many universities and colleges, the money doesn’t cover the full cost of tuition, fees, and other expenses, and some students don’t have the resources to pay the rest. Others arrive from low-performing public high schools less well prepared than their higher-income classmates.

Whatever the reason, there’s no central database to consult to know what taxpayers are getting for their $31.4 billion-a-year investment, or for Pell students and their parents to easily compare their likely success at one institution versus another.

At 15 of the 82 colleges and universities studied by Hechinger, Pell recipients graduated at a higher rate than their classmates who did not receive Pell grants, though at only nine of those schools was the difference larger than 1 percentage point.

At Lindenwood University, in Missouri, for instance, 60% of Pell Grant students graduated, compared to 45% of all students. At Utah’s Weber State University, the Pell graduation rate was 48%, five percentage points higher than for the total student body.

But at a much higher number of schools, the graduation rate for students receiving Pell grants lagged far behind that for other students. At the University of Alabama, where 18% of students get Pell grants, just over half of the Pell recipients graduated in six years, compared to 67% of all students. Forty percent of Liberty University students get the federal grant, but only half of them graduate within six years, compared to 68% of all students at the Virginia-based school.

The graduation rate alone isn’t enough to know how much federal Pell money is going to students who don’t earn degrees. Calculating that would require knowing the award amounts and how long a student was enrolled before dropping out. But it would be useful information to have, experts said, particularly for low-income students trying to pick a school where they would be most likely to succeed.

“Right now, there’s not really a way for students to evaluate, ‘How does a student like me do at this institution?’” said Carrie Warick, director of partnerships and policy for the National College Access Network. She and many others said that if schools are following the disclosure rules required by the Higher Education Opportunity Act, it shouldn’t be difficult to incorporate that number into federal data reporting systems.”There’s a real concern in Congress about not increasing burden,” Warick said. “This shouldn’t create an additional burden. They’re already supposed to be tracking this information.”

In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics, the branch of the Department of Education that collects and publishes data from colleges, did an internal review of Pell grant graduation rates by institution in 2006 that was not publicly distributed, according to Mark Schneider, who was the commissioner of NCES at the time.

“I was just trying to do a proof of concept,” Schneider said. “I showed it could be done and it could have been done years ago.”

Now a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, Schneider said he still believes that someday these numbers will be published and easily accessible. But while that may be good news for students, not everyone will be happy about it, he said. “I believe that one of the things that’s going to happen when we get Pell graduation rates,” he said, is that “we’re going to be really, really sorry we have them because they’re going to be so bad.” 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.