Should We Fear Release of Pell Grant Grad Rates?

June 13, 2014
By Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

The education community will finally get Pell Grant recipient graduation rates by institutions in mid-May! Oh wait, it’s June already? In January, Congress, through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, directed the U. S. Department of Education to report information on the Pell Grant recipient graduation rates by institution to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees in 120 days. NCAN eagerly awaits the report's release.

For years, advocates in the higher education community have asked the federal government to require institutions to provide graduation rates for their Pell Grant recipients. This information is important to student consumers because it is widely assumed, as with attainment gaps among racial groups, that some institutions are better at graduating Pell Grant recipients than other institutions, even among recipients with similar academic backgrounds. Pell grant recipient graduation rates are also important to the federal government, which spends approximately $35 billion on Pell Grants annually.

While the original deadline may have been missed, the report to Congress will eventually be issued. Should proponents of the Pell Grant program be concerned about these data becoming public? Advocates for students should not be overly concerned because the data will help them to better advise students on where to attend college. Some institutions may have reason to worry, however, if their Pell Grant recipients graduate at much lower rates than other students. Yet some supporters of the Pell Grant program may be concerned that this information will add fuel to the fire of Congressional representatives who think the country spends too much on the Pell Grant program.

Fortunately, the National Center for Education Statistics has some little-used information on aggregate Pell Grant recipient graduation rates that can provide a preview of what is to come. The statistics from the Beginning Postsecondary Student Survey of 2003-04 do allow for an overview of Pell Grant recipients and their graduation rates through 2008-09. Unfortunately, however, BPS does not provide an institutional breakdown of information so it cannot be used for college advising. It does give insight into overall Pell Grant recipient graduation rates because as a longitudinal study it includes transfer students.

As the chart to the right demonstrates, completion rates for dependent students who started college with a Pell Grant were only 7.9 percent lower than for non-Pell recipient dependent students. This gap is clearly worth addressing, but it is not nearly as large as many might anticipate. Based on the challenges that many Pell Grant recipients experience in terms of academic preparation and poverty, perhaps it's even surprising this gap isn't much larger.

In even better news, the data for independent students shows that those who started out with a Pell Grant graduated at 6.7 percentage points higher than non-Pell independent students. This surprising gap reversal between the groups of independent students highlights the overall lower completion rates of independent students. This fact brings up further questions to explore, such as how well independent students are served by the FAFSA form, or if there are other factors relating to their completion rates (lack of supports, child care, improved job status, academic calendar/schedule, etc.).

In fact, what is most alarming from these statistics is not the attainment gaps for Pell Grant recipients, but the differences between dependent and independent students. Dependent student completion is 23 percentage points higher than independent student completion. In the “left school without returning” category, less than one-third of dependent students left without yet returning, but more than half of independent students did. Independent Pell Grant recipients were actually less likely to leave school (48.6%) than non-Pell students (55%).

When ED releases its report on institutional Pell Grant recipient graduation rates, advocates must consider the numbers with dependency status in mind. Some bad actor institutions will come to light, which will help low-income students make better college choices. There also will be strong examples of institutions that are serving low-income students well. Overall, there is likely to be a gap between those receiving a Pell Grant and those who do not. In the end, the question shouldn’t be, “Is the Pell Grant program worth it,” but, “Why is higher ed working so much better for dependent than independent students?”

Pell Grant grad rates are coming. Should we fear them? @CarrieWarick says no. Read more:

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