The Really Low College Completion Rate of Poor Kids

It turns out that one of the primary predictors that someone who starts college won’t graduate is, oddly enough, receiving money from the federal government designed to help him pay for college. Pell Grants, which provide federal money for college to Americans from low and moderate income families, aren’t working out so well.

That information comes from a new piece at the Atlantic, indicating that,

51 percent of Pell students graduate nationwide, compared to 65 percent of non-Pell students. The average gap between wealthy and poor students at the same schools is much smaller: an average of 5.7 percentage points. That’s because many Pell students attend schools with low graduation rates

This information comes from a study by the Education Trust. The reason for this is a little unclear. As Ed Trust puts it “more than a third of four-year colleges and universities have even smaller gaps or no gaps [in graduation rate by family income] at all. These data deliver a powerful blow to those who question whether taxpayer dollars are being wasted or whether most low-income students are even capable of completing college.”

One of the interesting things it might be worth considering, however, is how this sort of thing has changed over time. About 9 percent of Americans from the lowest income bracket have earned a bachelor’s degree. That’s up from 6 percent in 1970. But that minor uptick doesn’t reflect the huge change in the number of low-income students who have started college now.

The poor performance of low-income students in college is not exactly new information (though this 51 percent rate is new) but observers often discuss this as if it were evidence of the need to work on “coaching” or helping people to navigate the “culture” of college. As Melissa Korn put it in this article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, “ keeping poor students on track once they’re at college remains a challenge. That’s due in part to academic issues, since those students’ high schools may not have prepared them for the rigors of a college course load….”

But most of these 51 percent probably don’t have much trouble “fitting in” to their academic setting (because most poor people attend college largely with other poor people) or being unable to intellectually comprehend their coursework.

We know this because the number one reason college dropouts cite for leaving college is financial problems. No, getting the poor to college success isn’t about teaching the “norms, values, and expectations” of higher education, it’s just about making college affordable.

The problem that most low-income people have trying to complete college is that they can’t pay for it. Their Pell grants don’t cover the cost of college, forcing them to work many jobs or take out huge loans to get an education. Pell grants, which used to cover more than 75 percent of the cost of attendance at public university, now cover now cover less than one-third of the money needed. Many poor college students, somewhat sensibly, conclude that college just isn’t work it, and drop out.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer