Hey Congress, we’ve got to do something about the #PellDivide.

By Nicole Siegel

Colleges are supposed to serve as mobility machines for all students by helping them to secure the degrees they need to find a well-paying job and be successful in the 21st century economy. And yet, only 50% of students who enter a postsecondary education earn a degree. Surprised? It gets worse.

Thanks to new data released in October 2017 by the federal government, graduation rates of first-time, full-time Pell students showed just how bad the completion crisis in higher education is for low-and moderate-income students.

A majority of four-year institutions fail to serve their Pell students well with only 47% of institutions graduating half or more of the Pell students who initially enrolled. And nationally Pell students graduate at a rate of 18% points less than their non-Pell peers.

The good news is that some institutions are bucking this trend, demonstrating that it’s possible to serve these students well. And as a recent Twitter chat hosted by Third Way showed, there’s a lot we can learn about ways to address the growing divide in higher education before it widens even more. To help us think through this topic, we invited co-hosts Robert Kelchen, Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Seton Hall University, The Education Trust, IHEP (The Institute for Higher Education Policy), and Young Invincibles, and a sampling of their responses is below.

For example, participants weighed in on a series of questions, including:

1. We know colleges are supposed to serve as mobility engines for low-income students, but nationally, we see that Pell students graduate at a rate 18-percentage points lower than their non-Pell peers. Why is this happening?

According to participants, Pell students often face a variety of barriers preventing them from successfully completing their degree and often don’t receive the support they need from the institutions where they have enrolled.

2. Why does completion matter for Pell Grant students?

Education is often characterized as “the great equalizer in our society.” And answers to this question reveal just how true that rings for getting low-income students across the graduation finish line.

3. Data shows that institutions with the same share of Pell students have wildly different completion outcomes. We know it’s possible to do well with Pell students, so what are some best practices institutions have put in place to help close equity gaps?

While some institutions may have established innovative initiatives to help address equity gaps, our participants’ answers demonstrate that sometimes it’s the most obvious and simple tactics that make a difference: support and good leadership.

4. As Congress looks to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, what federal policies would help improve outcomes for Pell students the most?

It’s clear from the responses to this question that the current systems we have in place are creating roadblocks for students in their pursuit of higher education, instead of (verb needed) the information and resources they need to get to and through college successfully.

5. What other questions should policymakers be asking to make sure institutions are best serving Pell students?

In the fall of 2017, access to first-time, full-time Pell student graduation rates was made available by the federal government which was an important step towards providing a better picture of how institutions serve these students. But to really narrow the graduation gaps, access to more comprehensive data is key.

There’s no question a college degree is a ticket to economic success in the 21st century, but it’s clear many institutions of higher education are failing to serve as the mobility machines they’ve promised to be. The completion crisis is felt even more acutely for low- and moderate-income students and as evidenced by this conversation, there is consensus around opportunities Congress can take to better serve this population — now it’s time for them to act.


Nicole Siegel is the communications advisor for education at Third Way.

Like what you read? Give Third Way a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.