Since 1973, the Federal Pell Grant program has been making college education possible for millions of first-generation, low-income students. The program has not been without its challenges, however: a large number of Pell students fall into the degree attainment gap, failing to earn a credential.
It’s important to note that the degree completion problem is not unique to low-income students. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that only 60 percent of college students complete their degree.
But the completion gap affects Pell Grant recipients, many of whom fall below the poverty line, even more. According to a 2015 report by The Education Trust, low-income students nationally are 14 percent less likely to attain a degree than their wealthier peers. In fact, just 51 percent of Pell grantees complete their degree.
So colleges and universities striving to improve course completion and degree attainment rates also have to find ways to provide effective learning experiences for these students, many of whom are from diverse learning backgrounds with varying levels of college readiness.
Who are Pell students?
A typical Federal Pell Grant recipient is an undergraduate student who has not yet earned a bachelor’s degree or an equivalent professional degree.
In 2015, the latest year for which the U.S. Department of Education has data, 8.3 million students received Pell Grants, receiving $30.6 billion in aid.
More than half of Pell grantees come from low-income families, according to the last National Postsecondary Student Aid Study compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2012.They are more likely to be female, Black, American Indian, or Hispanic, and not dependent on their parents. They are also more likely to be the first in their immediate families to go to school; only 27 percent of Pell Grant recipients in 2012 had a parent with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
The degree attainment gap and Pell students
The degree attainment gap for Pell students has sometimes caused critics to call for an overhaul of the program; but the Education Trust report suggests that institutions have a role in closing the gap. Within most schools, the average completion gap between a Pell student and a non-Pell student is much smaller than the overall gap for students in all schools. Pell students, on average, are just 5.7 percent less likely to graduate than their non-Pell classmates. Some schools, writes Trust director Andrew Howard Nichols, have closed their degree attainment gap entirely.
The larger problem is enrollment stratification. Many low-income students enroll in institutions with low graduation rates for all students. According to the Education Trust report, half of Pell grantees attend the colleges with the lowest average SAT scores in the country. The Pell Grant students at the schools with the highest scores, on the other hand, have much higher completion rates: 74 percent of Pell students at top-tier schools complete their degrees, compared to 79 percent of non-Pell students. At the schools with the second-highest SAT scores, 55 percent of students graduate, compared to 62 percent of their non-Pell peers.
However, a report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation shows that very few low-income students even apply to selective schools; only about 23 percent, in fact.
Those low-income students that do get into the most competitive schools comprise just three percent of total enrollment. They are likely to be deterred by the cost of top-tier schools or unaware that they may not have to pay full price if admitted.
Increasing support and expanding access for Pell students
Since most Pell-eligible students enroll in less selective institutions, the challenge becomes how best to help these students persist and complete their degrees while balancing the pressure to contain costs.
In 2015, National Louis University in Chicago launched a hybrid program, the Harrison Pathways Program, to expand access to students with less preparation for college success. HP3, as it is known, uses Acrobatiq’s On Track To Complete Enterprise Platform to personalize the online component of their learning. Class meetings focus on one-on-one instruction and coaching, and students have additional academic supports outside of class.
After the first year of HP3, the learning data collected by the platform has enabled educators to make more informed decisions about how to help students succeed. Outcomes improved: going into the second year of the program, the retention rate was 76 percent.
In another example, John Carroll University in Ohio is creating a predictive analytics program that will send early alerts to students who are in danger of failing. Georgia State University is joining forces with 10 other institutions to build a more rigorous academic advising and intervention plan for first generation and low-income students. Community colleges across the nation are partnering with 4-year institutions to create pathways for low-income students.
New, online pedagogies may also improve access to education for low-income students. Online courses, for example, allow students who work or who can’t get to campus a chance to earn credits from home.
Another successful model is the blended classroom, which centers on students’ needs and was shown in a study by non-profit research organization Ithaka S+R to reduce time to completion.
The study compares a version of a statistics course used in a hybrid delivery model with a traditional face-to face statistics course using randomly assigned students at six public universities. Students in the hybrid format had comparable or better learning gains and took 25 percent less time to achieve the same outcomes.
“The results of this study are remarkable; they show comparable learning outcomes for this basic course, with a promise of cost savings and productivity gains over time,” writes Deanna Marcum, Ithaka S+R’s managing director.
Ending enrollment stratification for first-generation, low-income students
The first, and most effective, step in closing the attainment gap between Pell and non-Pell students, however, is addressing enrollment stratification; top-tier schools are simply not doing enough to enroll low-income students.
Selective schools are likely to enroll legacy students and athletes, and they typically require high SAT or ACT scores. This, according to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, excludes low-income students, who are half as likely to take a college preparation exam than their wealthy peers.
Some top-tier schools are already leading the way when it comes to enrolling more Pell Grant recipients.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s recent report on college opportunity and low-income students, a handful of selective schools are considering changes to their admissions requirements that will give low-income students more of an advantage. The University of California, for example, has emphasized the importance of “holistic” review policies, which allow admissions officials to look at the whole applicant rather than relying on test scores, according to a report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
How can colleges close the gap?
When first-generation, low-income students arrive at college for the first time, they may have challenges their wealthier classmates don’t face. To help those students graduate with their intended degree, colleges and universities must find ways to better serve their needs.
If these students are raising families or working full-time, the answer may be to expand access to education through high-quality, cost-effective online learning. For those who arrive on campus underprepared for the rigors of college, the answers may be blended programs that combine personalized online learning with tutoring and coaching that is informed by data.
As the U.S. Department of Education writes in its report, college is the best investment that can be made in the country’s future. To close the completion gap, and provide a high-quality education for all low-income students, schools must look beyond their current teaching methods and embrace new, data-driven ways of delivering education.
A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.