Federal Pell grants are meant to give students who otherwise might not have the financial means to get a college degree a chance to go to school. About a third of U.S. college students receive these grants — which range from $650 to $6,195 per year — to help pay for college.
While that’s a help, it is rarely enough to cover the full cost of college. Many Pell-grant recipients must also take out student loans. They may hope that the higher future income prospects of a college degree will help pay off those loans.
But what happens if they don’t finish school? That is a real risk: For students entering Minnesota schools in 2011, Pell students graduated (within 6 years) at a rate 13 percent lower than their non-Pell peers. That’s the statewide average, though — individual schools in Minnesota have widely varying graduation rates for Pell-grant students compared to non-Pell students, from a 22 percentage-point gap to no gap at all.
That these students are doing better at some higher ed institutions than at others has implications for both their futures — graduating with debt and no degree sets up students for more financial hardship — and for taxpayers, who fund Pell grants.
Congress created Pell grants in 1972 to try to help lower-income students afford college. But as higher education has become more expensive, the grants cover a shrinking share the cost of going to school. Pell grants differ from other federal programs to pay for college because unlike with federal loans, students never have to pay back the money.
Today, the family of a typical Pell grant student makes $60,000 or less per year, said Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Kelchen compiled the data on graduation rates for Pell students starting college in 2011 that are used in this article. A student receiving the full Pell grant comes from a family making a fraction of that.
“Pell grants are designed to help students from lower/middle-income families pay for college, but the Pell Grant only covers a part of the total cost of attending college,” Kelchen said.
In Minnesota, low-income students can also receive a state grant, ranging from $100 to $11,800, depending on need and the type of institution the student attends. Low-income students also often receive scholarship aid from the school they attend.
But for the majority of students, including many Pell-eligible students, it’s still pretty tough to attend college without incurring any costs. And that can mean taking out loans.
Those loans need to be paid back whether students finish college or not, and for students who don’t finish, lower wage prospects make repaying the loans more difficult.
As lower-income students, Pell grant recipients already face a host of challenges to graduation not encountered by their peers: they may be expected to provide financial support to their family, and they are often first-generation college students without family members who can help them navigate the college experience.
In Minnesota, a Pell student’s odds of graduating vary a lot depending on which school they attend.
The gap between Pell student graduation rates (58 percent within six years for students who started school in 2011), and non-Pell students (67 percent for the same cohort) was 9 percentage points in Minnesota. That’s on par with the gap nationally, according to six-year graduation rate data compiled by Kelchen and analyzed by MinnPost. (MinnPost did not consider schools that had fewer than 100 students in their 2011 class.)
At some schools, the gap was much larger than that average, while at others, the gap was nonexistent.
The Minnesota school with the largest gap in Kelchen’s dataset was the College of St. Scholastica, a private, four-year college with an undergraduate enrollment of 2,500 and its main campus in Duluth. At St. Scholastica, Pell students graduated at a rate of 51 percent, compared to 73 percent for non-Pell students. That 22-point gap was more than double the state and national average and was one of the largest across institutions in the U.S.
“That gap is obviously larger than what we would like to see,” said Ellen Johnson, the school’s vice president for enrollment management.
About a quarter of students that started at St. Scholastica in 2011 were Pell students.
At St. Scholastica, many students come from the Twin Cities or rural Minnesota, Johnson said. Students who put in extra work to help support their family are often forced to focus attention off-campus, sometimes far away.
“While we think we are serving them well on campus, sometimes there’s family pressures that require them to be closer to home,” Johnson said.
The gap between Pell and non-Pell graduation rates hasn’t escaped notice at St. Scholastica, Johnson said. After 2011, the school increased its efforts to raise first-year retention rates — a major predictor of student success — plus offer extra financial aid to students who most need it.
“Graduating on time is very predictive, based on that end of first-year GPA, and so that’s where we’ve put retention efforts, both on the financial side — Pell-eligible or students who need financial assistance … but moreso with student support mechanisms for students who are coming in,” she said.
The school has seen improvement, Johnson said, and expects to see the gap closing as subsequent cohorts come through the college.
According to Johnson, the gap in graduation rates for the cohort coming in in 2012 — one year after the cohort in Kelchen’s data — was 14 percentage points, with a 59 percent six-year graduation rate for Pell students. The rate for non-Pell students was unchanged.
St. Scholastica wasn’t the only school in Minnesota with a large gap: Concordia College at Moorhead, Crown College, Concordia University in St. Paul, the University of Minnesota-Morris, Bethel University and St. Catherine University, each had graduation rate gaps of 16 percentage points between Pell and non-Pell students.
Kelchen also flagged the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, not for having a large gap relative to schools in Minnesota, but for having a bigger gap than most of its peer institutions in the Big Ten. About 22 percent of students who started at the U in 2011 were Pell-eligible, according to Kelchen’s data.
For students who started at the U of M in 2011, there was a nearly 13 percentage-point gap between Pell and non-Pell graduation rates, with Pell students graduating at a rate of 70 percent and non-Pell students graduating at a rate of 83 percent. The average gap among Big Ten schools was 9 percentage points.
That gap has gotten smaller over time, said Robert McMaster, the U’s vice provost and dean of undergraduate education: for the class that started in 2005 and graduated by 2011, there was a 21 percentage point difference in graduation rates between Pell and non-Pell students.
He attributes part of that shrinking gap to a program that gives more financial aid and mentorship to promising students who might need them.
The school also prioritizes giving its own need-based funding to low-income students who are Minnesota residents, McMaster said. Pell students from out-of-state are not eligible for the state grant, so the gap between their total grants and the cost of attendance tends to be larger.
McMaster said for the cohort that started in 2012, the gap between Pell and non-Pell graduation rates had narrowed to 10 percentage points.
Not all schools have a large gap between Pell and non-Pell student graduation rates.
Many of Minnesota’s small, moderate to highly-selective private liberal arts schools had small gaps or no gap at all in Kelcher’s data, including Bethany Lutheran College, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Olaf College, the College of St. Benedict and Carleton College.
At Gustavus, a small liberal arts school with an enrollment of 2,200 in St. Peter, Minnesota, Pell grant students graduated at a rate 1 percentage point higher than their non-Pell colleagues. The rates were 81 percent and 80 percent respectively.
Gustavus officials say the school’s tight-knit campus and small class sizes — most classes have fewer than 20 students in them — help the school monitor students’ success closely. About 22 percent of students in the cohort that started school in 2011 received Pell grants.
Making sure students don’t fall through the cracks is a big part of the administration’s philosophy, said Alisa Rosenthal, associate provost and special assistant to the president for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Part of that is making sure students who have gaps between state and federal grants and the cost of attending college get scholarships that help fund school as much as possible, Rosenthal said.
Gustavus has a mentorship program for first-generation students, low-income and underrepresented students.
The school also has a retention committee that looks through students at risk of dropping out of school to try to figure out how to help, said Kirk Carlson, assistant vice president for enrollment management and associate dean of financial aid.
Students can be flagged as at-risk in several ways. Using software that tracks student success, a faculty member who a student has confided in could flag them as needing help with academics or finance. It might come out as the retention committee reviews records.
Rosenthal also hypothesized students’ success has to do with the school’s location — most students live on campus, close to support — and its culture.
“It’s the combination of a data-informed approach to identifying potential risks and risk factors, along with the community commitment,” Rosenthal said.