Pell Grad Rates: Where Students Enroll Matters

September 24, 2015

Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

A few years ago, a member told me about his program’s “no list.” It’s the list of schools where the program would not offer additional support to the student if he/she attended there because of the schools’ abysmal ability to graduate students from that program in the past. But how do you advise a student who wants to attend an institution where your program doesn’t have much history? With a new report from The Education Trust today, creating that “no list” nationwide just became much easier. 

The report, The Pell Partnership: Ensuring a Shared Responsibility for Low-Income Student Success and accompanying online look-up tool, examine the Pell Grant recipient graduation rate data at 1,149 four-year public and non-profit, private colleges and universities. This data release is a huge win for students because it includes ALL students at the institution (not just those receiving aid like on the College Scorecard), so it allowed lead researcher Andrew Nichols to examine the attainment gaps between Pell Grant recipients and those who do not receive Pell Grant awards. 

What did he find? At the institutional level, the average percentage point gap between Pell Grant recipient graduation rates and non-recipient graduation rates was only 5.7%. Slightly more than a third of the institutions examined have a small or no gap at all. Unfortunately, the same proportion of institutions has extremely large gaps of 9 percentage points or more. This third of institutions with such a large gap is one problem that needs to be addressed.

The second problem is where the majority of Pell Grant recipients attend college. “At the national level, the graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients is just 51 percent compared to 65 percent for non-Pell students,” said Andrew H. Nichols, director of higher education research and data analytics for Ed Trust. “By closing existing gaps at the college level, especially the egregiously large gaps that exist in about one-third of four-year institutions, we can cut that gap in half. To go the remaining distance, though, we’ll have to take on the even more challenging matter of enrollment stratification, because where Pell students do and don’t enroll matters quite a bit.”

Advocates here in Washington have secretly worried that releasing this type of data would reflect poorly on students and the Pell Grant program itself. Instead, the Ed Trust report shows that the issue is not the Pell Grant program or the students, but in fact, the institutions where a student decides to attend. In order to fully close the national graduation gap, three actions are needed:

  1. Institutions with high graduation rates for all students must expand the number of Pell Grant recipients that they admit and enroll.
  2. Institutions with a large attainment gap between their high-income and low-income students must provide better supports and examine any institutional barriers so that all students can graduate at higher rates.
  3. Institutions with a low graduation rate for all students need to increase their graduation rates across the board.

For all of these institutional actions, policymakers should consider incentives to help them make these changes.

These are long-term solutions requiring policy change at the institutional and federal level. But NCAN members can do a great deal with the data available immediately. On the Education Trust’s website –, members can view every four-year public or non-profit, private institution in their state including their Pell Grant recipient graduation rate or if they chose not to participate. As you students enter admissions season, use this data to help guide them to a school where students like them succeed.

.@EdTrust report: 1/3 of 4yr IHEs not serving Pell students well. Advisors need this data 2 help guide #PellGradRates

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