- A majority of four-year institutions are not meeting the needs of their Pell Grant students, according to a new report from higher education research group Third Way. After six years, only around 49% of first-time, full-time Pell Grant recipients earned a bachelor's degree from the college they initially enrolled in — a rate that goes down to one-in-five students at for-profit institutions. Among all four-year schools, 214 maintain Pell graduation rates lower than 25%, which means only 9,904 of the total 60,000 Pell students attending this group of schools graduated within six years.
- Eighty percent of the 1,566 four-year institutions analyzed in the study graduate Pell students at a lower rate than their other students; of those schools, 573 have graduation gaps that are greater than 10 percentage points. According to the report, there are many PSI (Pell-serving institution) deserts throughout the nation, yielding unequal access to a handful of high-performing PSIs — with 70% of the top 10 public institutions in this category, for instance, being solely within the University of California System.
- The report recommends policymakers take heed of these statistics and invest resources in high-quality PSIs and institutions with low Pell student graduation gaps. It also says policymakers should consider having institutions take on part of Pell students' loan risks so there is greater accountability to focus on their return on investment, and they should provide high-performing institutions with greater federal incentives to enroll more low-income students.
What the Third Way report shows, explained authors Tamara Hiler and Wesley Whistle to Education Dive in an interview, is that there needs to be more discussion by policy and institution leaders about the need for disaggregation of data around student performance, as well as a public call for those in the industry to use that data to inform best practices to meet the needs of underserved students.
"What makes this [survey] unique is that this is the first time the public can really see all the data in one place on how Pell students are doing, and this is only first-time full-time Pell students," Hiler said. She added that in the fall, the Education Department is scheduled to release data on part-time and transfer Pell student graduation rates.
"We can see there are very clear outliers and institutions that are able to buck the trend," she said. "We need to look at those institutions and see how can we help to support and scale those efforts."
This is the case not only in terms of holding institutions accountable, but also in order to ensure that Pell students are not being set back simply because of where they are located. Whistle said policymakers need to focus on the wide swath of Pell deserts and ask what can be done to incentivize institutions in those places to accept more low-income students or help them develop better practices for meeting their needs.
"Of course Harvard and Yale should admit more Pell students, but that wouldn't solve the problem. ... We need to look at institutions across the board," said Whistle. "We know a lot of Pell students are likely to go to institutions that are close by. ... There are some areas that have lots of institutions that aren't serving Pell students at all; we really need to look at those areas."
Institution leaders can take charge with this issue, said Hiler, by being vocal about successful practices and sharing them with others. At the same time, colleges and universities that are underperforming should ask for help. "We need to start acknowledging and looking at this data and be willing to have public conversations," she said.