The Elusive Pell Grant Recipient Graduation Rates

January 27, 2015

Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has officially responded to the Congressional request on Pell Grant recipient graduation rates by institution. Why is this author not more excited? The report, issued in memo format, does not actually include the “by institution” part of the request.

ED Acting Assistant Secretary Lloyd Horwich sent the letter to then Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services, Education and Related Agencies on November 25, 2014. In the letter, Mr. Horwich stated “the Department’s National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) does not, at this time, have detailed enrollment and graduation information for all Pell Grant recipients.” The memo includes some cohort graduation statistics, but the Department had to create these cohorts using what data were available to it. The few graduation rates in this release cannot help students answer the question, “Where will a student like me succeed?” 

Having complete institutional level data on the graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients is crucial to students’ college selection decision-making process. When selecting a college or university, students need to know where they are most likely to be successful. In a series of reports from Ed Trust, researchers show that institutions with similar profiles have a wide range of achievement gaps among racial/ethnic groups, from no gap at all to gaps of over 20%. Similar to the racial/ethnic groups, it can be assumed that many institutions do have an achievement gap when it comes to low-income students and their higher income peers. 

Advocates have long sought the more specific information of Pell Grant recipient graduation rate by institution and were excited by the promise of NSLDS data, even though full, six-year cohort data would not be available until after the 2017-18 academic year. As the Department’s memo highlights in even more detail, NSLDS is not the ideal platform for collecting this data. In the remaining years left until full six-year cohorts of Pell Grant recipients are available from NSDLS, policymakers must work to find a better solution for how to record and monitor this information. Even if we wait five years, the letter from ED shows clearly that NSDLS is not the ideal source for this information. The most practical, and immediate, solution would be to add this statistic to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Institutions are already required by law to disclose their Pell Grant recipient graduation rates, so it would not be an additional burden. In the long run, a larger conversation considering a student unit record database is needed. 

Using what it does have available at this time, ED built the cohorts mentioned above based on students who started in the 2007-08 academic year. The memo ends with a chart including cohort level Pell Grant recipient graduation rates, but policymakers and analysts should use great caution when interpreting these numbers. In particular, they should not compare them to graduation rates from other sources because they do not represent the same cohort of students. The students in this cohort represent 70% of Pell Grant recipients who began college in 2007-08. This cohort is not replicable in other sources. For this reason, lawmakers should hold judgment on program effectiveness until more complete data are available.

This letter highlights the need for this type of institutional specific information and also the many limitations that ED has in being able to provide that information to lawmakers and students. Two years in a row, policymakers have included this request in the budget, and the Department has delivered the information that is available to it. A better solution, such as IPEDS or further conversations about a student unit record, is needed to provide information on institutional specific outcomes for low-income students so that they can make informed choices about college and lawmakers can make informed policy decisions. 

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