Report: Pell Student Success Tied Closely to School Selectivity

The Institute for College Access and Success found that completion rates for Pell Grant recipients have risen across all types of institutions of higher education.
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  • Pell Grant recipients are most likely to attend schools with lower graduation rates among these students.
  • The most selective colleges, meanwhile, also enroll Pell Grant recipients at the lowest rates.
  • Data also show that there was a surge in Pell Grant recipients enrolling in college during the Great Recession.

A new analysis of federal data on Pell Grant recipients not only shows how the program is working at the country's institutions of higher education, but also shows how students may respond to a potential recession.

The three-part report by The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) breaks down Pell Grant recipients' completion rates for two-year community colleges, four-year public institutions, and four-year private nonprofit institutions.

Among its key findings is that the colleges that enroll the fewest Pell Grant recipients graduated those students at higher rates.

Likewise, the analysis found that higher education has shown marked improvement overall in getting these students to the graduation stage. Completion rates have steadily risen across all types of institutions analyzed in the TICAS reports. In the case of community colleges, the three-year completion rate has more than doubled since 2000. That's largely thanks to new programs that support students while enrolled.

Pell Grants supported approximately 6.9 million college students during the 2019-2020 academic year. About 3 million students attended public or nonprofit four-year institutions, while another 2 million attended community colleges, per the TICAS reports.

The program is the most popular federal grant for low- and middle-income students.

Discrepancies Between Selective Schools

TICAS's report on four-year institutions shows that the likelihood of a Pell recipient graduating within six years of enrolling varies widely based on the selectivity of their school.

The analysis determined selectivity based on the percentage of overall applicants admitted each year. Highly selective institutions admitted fewer than 40% of applicants, selective schools admitted between 40% and 60%, moderately selective schools admitted between 60% and 80%, and broad-access schools admitted more than 80% of applicants.

Here's the most recent six-year completion rates for each of those categories:

  • Highly selective: 81%
  • Selective: 62%
  • Moderately selective: 67%
  • Broad access: 61%

Community colleges were considered broad-access schools in TICAS's analysis. They graduated Pell recipients just 24% of the time as of 2018. For comparison, the national average graduation rate for all students attending community colleges was just over 42% in 2015, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

The most selective colleges, meanwhile, also enrolled these students at the lowest rates.

About 30% of students at selective, moderately selective, and broad-access four-year colleges were Pell Grant recipients, according to the report. At community colleges, the percentage sat at about 25%. However, at highly selective schools, that proportion was below 20%.

"More selective universities recruit students based on prior academic success and tend to have greater resources to support their students through degree completion and the opposite is often true for more broadly accessible universities," TICAS wrote in the analysis.

Lessons From the Great Recession

With rumors of a potential forthcoming recession, the TICAS reports on Pell Grant access and completion analyzed how the Great Recession of 2008 affected Pell recipient enrollment.

The report found that the percentage of students at all types of public and nonprofit institutions rose sharply at the start of the recession.

"There was a surge of Pell Grant students during the Great Recession, where Pell access rates nearly doubled in all but the most selective universities," the report on four-year institutions states. "This suggests more accessible universities have become more economically diverse since before the recession."

At community colleges, the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants peaked in 2010 at about 38%. Selective and broad-access institutions reported peaks of just under 40% in 2011. At highly selective schools, while there was an increase from 2008 to 2010, that peak stood at under 30%.

Since the Great Recession, the proportion has fallen across the board. The report notes that the COVID-19 pandemic brought a sharp decline in 2020. College enrollments fell substantially among lower-income students due to the pandemic.

Pell Grant Reform Incoming

Higher education stakeholders have long lobbied the federal government to substantially increase the maximum Pell Grant award, with many arguing that it should be doubled.

President Joe Biden's administration has taken steps to increase the purchasing power of this grant in recent years.

In 2022, Biden signed a spending bill into law that increased the maximum award by 6.2%. His recent proposal for the 2023 fiscal year would increase the max by another 25.7% to $8,670 per semester.

He also pledged to double the award by 2029, although experts say the lengthy timeline could make delivering on that promise difficult.

Amanda Martinez, senior education policy analyst at UnidosUS, previously told BestColleges that increasing the Pell Grant award will make it easier for low- and middle-income students to attend four-year colleges and universities debt free.

The current award covers most or all of the cost to attend a community college for two years, but covers less than 30% of the cost of a degree from a four-year institution, according to the Department of Education.