Report

Should 'Elites' be Allowed to Continue Ignoring Pell Students?

pell

All students stand a better chance of graduating at selective colleges, no matter their SAT score. Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

Should elite schools — even the private ones — be required to enroll a minimum number of Pell Grant recipients? That's the question posed in a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Pell grants are intended to help students with financial need attend college. The problem, according to "The 20% Solution: Selective Colleges Can Afford to Admit More Pell Grant Recipients," is that most recipients end up attending "open access" colleges, schools with low graduation rates compared to more selective institutions.

Research by the center has found that the most elite United States institutions, about 500 in total, could enroll more low-income students without weakening their graduation rates or their budgets. The research specifically looked at 86,000 Pell Grant recipients who scored at or above the median scores on the SAT or ACT tests sought out by those elite schools. (The report said that 64,000 Pell students with SAT scores of 1120 or greater already attend selective colleges.)

In elite institutions, Pell students graduate at almost the same rate as all students (78 percent compared to 82 percent). When Pell students attend open-access schools, the likelihood of graduation drops to 48 percent. The public institutions they attend are also more likely to be two-year community colleges than four-year universities. The "stratification of higher education" surfaces in that dichotomy as well, the report noted. While only 12 percent of students who start postsecondary education at a community college will receive a bachelor’s degree within six years, 57 percent of students who start at a four-year institution will earn a bachelor’s within six years.

As the researchers proposed, if every one of the 346 colleges and universities where Pell students make up less than 20 percent of the student population were required to maintain a Pell enrollment at least that high, more than 72,000 Pell students could find themselves enrolled in schools where they were more likely to succeed.

The selective colleges and universities with the lowest rates of Pell students are primarily private institutions, the report stated. Yet, the seven universities that would have to add the most students to reach the 20 percent Pell threshold are all public institutions, because they also have the largest enrollments.

Pell grants average $3,724; the maximum is $5,815. That covers just a small portion of the cost of attending a selective school, the report pointed out, which means that selective schools would probably have to expand their financial aid budgets to make room for Pell students. Whereas public institutions might argue that budget cuts prevent them from doing so, the researchers wrote, the same arguments predicting dire financial outcomes from elite private schools "ring hollow." The study found that many selective colleges have large budget surpluses. Among the 69 most selective private colleges, for example, the average annual budget surplus was $139 million, and the median endowment was $1.2 billion.

The march toward that 20 percent benchmark has already been blazed, the report asserted. A dozen elite "competitors," among them the University of California at Berkeley (where 31 percent of students are Pell recipients) and Columbia University (where 21 percent of the student body is made up of Pell students), have been able to maintain their standing while enrolling more than the threshold proposed by the center.

Last year, legislation was proposed by two U.S. senators, Christopher Coons (D-DE) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA), to compel schools to admit more Pell-eligible students. The "Access, Success, and Persistence in Reshaping Education Act of 2016" or ASPIRE Act has gone nowhere other than to committee. But the bipartisan sentiment remains. "We’re working to even the playing field to make sure that’s a reality for students of all economic backgrounds at every college and university in the country," said Isakson at the time of the bill's introduction.

One risk in pursuing the "20 percent solution" is that it could make some colleges "less racially and ethnically diverse," the researchers acknowledged. That's because among the Pell recipients who scored 1120 or higher on the SAT, 81 percent are white. Presuming that selective colleges would choose "from only the highest performers among Pell students, those primarily white recruitments could "displace some Black/African-American or Hispanic/Latino students who otherwise would have been accepted." However, the report added, colleges could offset that outcome by using strategies such as "making standardized tests optional for applicants and putting more emphasis on high school class rank and other factors."

"Although there are many tradeoffs to consider, perhaps the most important is that the best colleges and universities have the opportunity to serve more low-income students than they are currently," the report concluded. "These students now go to colleges from which they have only about a 50-50 chance of graduating. Enrolling them at colleges from which they have close to an 80 percent chance of graduating could go a long way toward advancing equity in this country — by giving students in poor financial circumstances a far greater chance of succeeding."

The full report is openly available on the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce here.

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