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ED: Schools Can Do More to Boost Pell Student Outcomes

Warning that the country is becoming "a caste system of colleges and universities," U.S. Department of Education Secretary John King recently called on education leaders to do more in recruiting and helping low-income students succeed in higher education. The remarks were made last week during an ED-hosted daylong summit, "Championing Completion: Improving College Outcomes for Pell Students."

"When it comes to student access," King said, "we need to acknowledge the ways in which we are becoming a caste system of colleges and universities — in which wealthier high school students get personalized college counseling, rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and disproportionate admittance to the nation's top universities, while, all too often, poorer students get shortchanged on these things."

At the same time, the agency King heads released a new report that drew attention to the efforts of 55 mostly four-year institutions that are beating the odds in providing Pell-eligible students with access to college and showing strong performance on measures of college success for those students. The findings were based on data culled from the College Scorecard and additional information from outside organizations.

Pell grants are funding provided by the U.S. government to students to help cover college expenses. Currently, about eight million students use the grants to subsidize their school costs. The size of the grant is determined by family financial need and typically forms the first building block of a student's financial aid package, to which other forms of aid are added. The maximum a student can receive for the 2016-2017 school year is $5,815.

The ED report, "Fulfilling the Promise, Serving the Need: Advancing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students," lays out an argument for the importance of Pell funding in helping students pursue postsecondary education while also highlighting the dramatic gaps that exist in how well those students do once they're in college based on how their schools serve them.

For example, students with high-income parents are nearly three times more likely to attend college than their peers with low-income parents, the report noted. They're also more likely to succeed once enrolled. About two-thirds — 68 percent — of non-Pell grant recipients graduate within six years. For Pell recipients, that percentage is cut in half. "These trends tell us there is more work to do to help low-income students pursue their educational goals and earn essential skills and credentials," the report stated.

The report pointed out that "many similarly situated colleges and universities" have widely different outcomes on measures related to college success and access. At the University of California-Irvine, for example, 43 percent of students are Pell recipients; 87 percent of them graduate within six years, compared to an overall graduation rate of 86 percent. That's considerably better than many other public institutions. Fewer than 50 such schools enroll more than 40 percent of their student body as Pell recipients and also have more than half of those students complete their degrees. The count is higher — 100 schools — among private nonprofits.

A key takeaway from the report is that the actions of individual schools "matter" and that all institutions can do more to help Pell students reach their educational and career goals. The exemplars referenced in the report use myriad approaches for promoting and tracking student progress and success toward their degree goals.

  • At New York's Sage Colleges, 46 percent of students enrolled are Pell recipients, of which 80 percent graduate within six years compared to an overall graduation rate of 58 percent. The school runs a program specifically for low-income and underrepresented students pursuing STEM and healthcare majors. The Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) allows students to participate in summer programs that will help them succeed in their first year of college; that comes with room and board and three college credits. Students can also apply for summer stipends and travel funding to support undergraduate research work with a faculty member. And they can apply for subsidies to help offset the cost of standardized or licensing exams.
  • Florida International University has a 58 percent enrollment of Pell recipients; 53 percent of them graduate within six years compared to a 52 percent graduation rate among the overall student body. The university runs the "Graduation Success Initiative," a broad set of services both technological and human in nature, intended to help undergrads get through their degree programs. Among the technology solutions: MyMajor, a Web site that shows students the major pathways for specific programs of study; My_eAdvisor, which alerts both students and advisers when a student goes off track from his or her academic pathway; and PDA, the Panther Degree Audit, which provides a user with a real-time record of academic progress toward a given degree. The institution is also pursuing a goal of reaching a 300-to-1 academic adviser-to-student ratio.

Both the ED event and the report arrived as the education budget battle is heating up in Washington. Congress in its Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Resolution proposed dumping a scheduled increase in the maximum Pell Grant award, among other revisions, and freezing the maximum grant for a decade in order to discourage schools from "hiking" their tuition. "Washington needs to stop shoveling more money at the problem of rising tuition in higher education. It only encourages colleges and universities to be less frugal with public dollars and makes hiking prices easier, because they know more federal support for students will continue," the resolution stated.

In contrast, President Obama's fiscal year 2017 budget supports the scheduled increase, which would raise the maximum Pell award to $5,935 and tie subsequent increases to increases in the Consumer Price Index, thereby possibly increasing the maximum by $1,300 over 10 years.

Obama's budget also recommends several other modifications:

  • Reinstatement of the year-round Pell grant, which would enable students to receive financial aid during a third semester if they've already completed 24 credits during the previous two semesters;
  • An "on-track" $300 Pell bonus to promote on-time completion by increasing the Pell Grant by an additional $300 for students taking at least 15 credit hours per semester;
  • A bonus program for schools that enroll and graduate a significant number of low- and moderate-income students, as measured by their Pell grant recipient graduation rates and low cohort default rates; and
  • "Second chance grants," to cover higher ed costs for prisoners eligible for release.

According to the Institute for College Access & Success, which has studied recent data released by the Congressional Budget Office, Pell grant costs have actually been in a decline since 2010 and "are projected to remain level over the next 10 years after adjusting for inflation." Although the grant program grew after 2008, due to greater student need driven by the worsening economy, the costs "peaked" in 2010 and they've been going down ever since, the institute reported.

"College is the best investment that Americans can make in their future," the Pell report noted. "That's why the federal government supports both greater access to higher education for low-income students, and their success once enrolled."

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