An Unprecedented Look at Pell Grant Graduation Rates From 1,149 Schools

Despite a large national gap, low-income students at some schools do as well as their classmates

A new study adds to a body of evidence that low-income students graduate college at lower rates than their more affluent classmates.

But the report argues that this has more to do with what schools the students go to than any disadvantage springing from their socioeconomic status.

Education Trust, a Washington-based education advocacy organization, collected the graduation rate of Pell grant recipients from 1,149 of public and nonprofit four-year colleges and university – a sample covering nearly 85 percent of first-time, full-time Pell students. The vast majority of these grants, of up to $5,775 per year, go to students from families earning less than $40,000 a year.

The study found that Pell recipients had a six-year graduation rate of 51 percent in 2013 compared to 65 percent for non-Pell students.

But the study found that the average was being dragged down by institutions from which few students ever graduate. If they are taken out of the sample, the difference between the percentage of Pell students and other students who graduate narrows to less than 6 percent, it says.

“Even if all institutional-level gaps in completion between Pell and non-Pell students were eliminated, there would still be a considerable national gap because too many Pell students attend institutions where few students of any sort graduate.”

Related: A ‘promising’ way to help low-income students to through college

Pell grants are the U.S. Department of Education’s largest single expenditure, making up $31.5 billion of its budget in 2013-14. Because of a quirk in federal policy, there is very little accountability for this money, however; schools must provide their Pell student graduation rates to any prospective applicant who asks, but are not required to report this information to the Department of Education.

The Education Trust had to gather much of the data from state education systems and from colleges and universities themselves. Their findings are in line with a Hechinger Report analysis based on information requested 100 of the country’s largest colleges and universities, which found that the average difference between the Pell grant student graduation rate and the overall graduation rate at those institutions was about 4 percentage points. (The 82 schools that provided the statistics had an average overall graduation rate of 70 percent.)

The Hechinger analysis also found wide variation in gaps among schools. The Education Trust report also found that 22 percent of institutions had no gap at all between the two groups or that the Pell students even fared better. But 20 percent still had a gap of at least 12 percentage points.

Sometimes similar institutions had significantly different outcomes. Two schools in the State University of New York system, for example – SUNY College at Oswego and SUNY College at Brockport—both have similar enrollments, median SAT scores and Pell recipient enrollment rates. But Pell students at Oswego had a graduation rate of 66 percent, compared to 48 percent at Brockport.

Related: The financial aid policy that shuts out millions of students

This report comes on the heels of the long-anticipated release of the Obama Administration’s College Scorecard, which includes school-level statistics such as students’ average debt. It also includes Pell Grant graduation rates, but the data are limited and may miss students.

As a result, the push for the government to require schools to report these figures continues.

The Education Trust report concludes: “Without the collection and publication of these data, we do not have a clear understanding of the performance and ultimate success of Pell grant students. Because the government is making a significant investment by disseminating these grants to students who need them most, it should ensure there is follow-through from institutions.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Sarah Butrymowicz

Sarah Butrymowicz received a bachelor's degree from Tufts University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.