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The power of information: More data on Pell Grants could help bridge the graduation gap

(Kenneth C. Zirkel/iStock)

In September 2015, the Education Trust released The Pell Partnership, a project that collected, shared and analyzed graduation rates and gaps for Pell Grant recipients — low-income and working-class families who receive federal need-based aid — and their peers at public and nonprofit private four-year colleges and universities. In that report, we issued a call for the federal government to collect and report institutions’ completion rates for Pell Grant recipients with the hope that more transparency would compel institutions to be better stewards of the government’s $27 billion-a-year investment in Pell Grants.

Late in 2017, the federal government answered our call, collecting these data from colleges and making completion rates for Pell Grant recipients available to prospective and current students, parents, policymakers and institutional leaders. Third Way recently used these new data in their report, “The Pell Divide,” bringing more attention to the nation’s completion crisis for low-income and working-class students.

These data are insightful, but there are still huge blind spots in our understanding of Pell recipient completion trends and patterns. There are no current data on how the completion rates of Pell Grant recipients differ by race and ethnicity. For example, we do not know how the graduation rates of today’s black Pell Grant recipients compare with those of white Pell Grant recipients or other black students who don’t receive Pell Grants.

To date, the best publicly available data that could answer these questions comes from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, which tracks students who entered college more than 15 years ago. These data are older but tell us that graduation gaps did exist at the national level among Pell students. For instance, completion rates for black Pell recipients who enrolled in 2002 trailed those of their white peers by 12 percentage points and trailed by 9 percentage points those of other black students who don’t receive Pell Grants.

Given that roughly 60 percent of the 7.3 million Pell Grant recipients are students of color, any attempt at improving graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients will largely depend on our capacity to increase completion rates for Pell Grant recipients of color, especially those who are black, Latino and Native American. To put it bluntly, conversations about better serving low-income and working-class students must include conversations about better serving students of color. As recent research has shown, addressing socioeconomic issues will not lead to racial equity.

If institutions are going to improve outcomes for Pell Grant recipients, it is essential that we have annual data on campus-level racial gaps and trends for Pell Grant recipients. And having access to these data will be instrumental in helping federal policymakers who need better information on how well (or how poorly) institutions are supporting students. The data will also help campus leaders who may be interested in improving graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients but lack the information needed to compare their outcomes across institutions and learn from higher-performing colleges.

The federal government does have plans to annually collect more graduation rate data for Pell Grant recipients in its Outcomes Measure collection. While these data will tell us more about outcomes of Pell recipients who initially enroll as part-time or transfer students, these data will not be disaggregated by race and ethnicity. Requiring institutions to disaggregate these data would provide us with the information we need, but some legislators and institutions are concerned that adding these extra reporting requirements would add to an already taxing slate of statutory, regulatory and other reporting requirements.

Creating a secure federal student-level data network would provide the completion data by income and race and ethnicity that we need — and much more — without adding more and more items for institutions to calculate and report. The data network would provide consumers, policymakers and institutional leaders with a valuable tool for measuring trends in college access and college outcomes — disaggregated by race and ethnicity, income, parents’ education level, age and any other category of interest.

Although better data alone won’t solve the completion crisis or improve graduation rates for black, Latino and Native students, data are valuable indicators that enable us to better identify what is working and what needs improvement. As legislators continue to determine their priorities for the next Higher Education Act reauthorization, we, and others, hope they push for better data that can inform the college decisions of students and families, protect the taxpayers’ annual $175 billion investment in federal higher education programs and initiatives, and help college and university leaders improve their service to students.

Andrew Howard Nichols is senior director of higher education research and data analytics for the Education Trust.

J. Oliver Schak is a senior research analyst for higher education at the Education Trust.