What Story Does the Pell Grant Data Tell?

Series: Changing How We Understand the Market<In this series, we analyze current enrollment and demographics data, uncovering stories that challenge how institutions often understand their marketplace—or that shed new light on emerging trends. We want to encourage a deeper look at the implications of today’s marketplace data. We hope that you will share these stories across your institution and use them to start critical conversations to drive not only enrollment strategy but discussions of curricular offerings, student support, and course design. While we’ll highlight findings and stories worthy of closer attention, each article includes an easy-to-use Tableau dashboard that you and your colleagues can use to drill deep in the data yourself.

Also in this series:
Yield Rates are Declining - Why?
Is the International Enrollment Boom a Rising Tide that Lifts All Ships?
How Simpson's Index Can Offer Universities a Different Look at Diversity
Why Measuring Diversity Matters
Graduate Enrollment and Gender: A Changing Landscape

By Jon Boeckenstedt (DePaul University)

The Pell Grant, originally passed into law in 1972 as the Basic Education Opportunity Grant (BEOG), is a federal program to provide assistance with tuition and other educational costs of a bachelor’s degree at over 5,000 participating post-secondary institutions. Federal appropriations for the Pell grant have increased dramatically since the financial crisis of 2007, driven mostly by dramatic increases in the number of students qualifying, and additionally by increases in the average amounts awarded. Still, maximum Pell Grant amounts have decreased in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1972. College costs, as everyone knows, have not.

Where does the money go?

It's not always easy to tell. The Federal reporting system known as IPEDS uses one set of ID numbers for institutions to track Pell Grants with some granularity; while the Federal Student Aid Office uses another system with another ID type.  One system provides information in a timely manner; another takes much longer. One uses an ID for a campus, another for the institution; and there is no perfect crosswalk to merge the two files.

Still, using IPEDS data (the slower), we can look at trends over time at about 6,900 colleges and universities with some degree of precision.  As is always the case with IPEDS data, it's important to remember that the data are not perfect: Some data points are missing, some are clearly inaccurate (a slip of the finger on the input key, or entering the right information in the wrong box, or even attempts to deceive in some cases). And not every institution has a long-tenured data expert who has the context to understand reporting requirements completely.

But while some data points for individual institutions may be off, collectively some interesting patterns do emerge. Let's take a look at the interactive visualization below, showing five different ways to look at the interestingness of Pell Grant data. This visualization shows data from the 2009-10 to the 2013-14 academic years:

Dig into the Data


Note: Use the blue boxes along the top of this interactive dashboard to navigate between views.

First Tab: Pell Grant & SAT

The first view points out the relationship between Pell Grant participation in the undergraduate student body, and the calculated mean SAT CR+M score (using the mid-point of the 25th and 75th percentiles). While this trend is not surprising given the positive correlation between family income and test scores, this might give pause to enrollment planners who are charged with increasing the SAT profile of the freshman class while simultaneously increasing the number of Pell Grant students enrolled. One may come at the cost of the other.

Unlike the other views, this tab has a narrower focus, and shows only 1,285 institutions that report SAT scores in IPEDS. You can highlight an individual institution by typing any part of its name into the Highlight box; then you'll see where that institution sits in the context of the industry.

Second Tab: Where Pell Grant Funds Go

The second tab shows where Pell dollars go. Nationally, the single largest allocation goes to students at community colleges. But look at a few states to see how it works there. Arizona and Iowa, for instance, are corporate headquarters to for-profit colleges operating across the US; students at colleges in Wyoming are almost exclusively public college students; and most of the money going to colleges in DC goes to students enrolled in private colleges and universities.

Third Tab: Pell Allocations by State

The third view shows similar data, but collapses categories and zooms out to a macro view, with each state visible at in one chart.  These ratios, of course, say as much about the types of educational offerings available in the state and how that drives enrollment, as they do about where students choose to enroll, and that's really the point: A federal program assists students in different states very differently.

Fourth Tab: Land Grant

The fourth view focuses on America's Land Grant institutions, universities founded to provide a broad segment of the population with a practical education that had direct relevance to their daily lives. There is no distinction here between the 1862, 1890, and 1994 land grant institutions, but you can use the filter to eliminate Tribal Colleges and/or HBCUs, or to focus on one specific Carnegie category (which coincides with the color-coding of the bars).

Fifth Tab: Percentage Increases

And finally, the fifth view shows that, even though overall Pell rates have increased, rates at individual colleges have not changed much at all over the five years shown. This is not surprising, as changing enrollment patterns takes five years at best (three at a two-year college). That's the lesson, of course, and it can be an important one for institutions who are hoping to change any element of the enrollment profile or portfolio.

Again, see where any one institution sits on this chart by typing any part of its name into the Highlight box.

Analysis: What Questions You Could Be Asking

In recent years, Pell Grant statistics have been used as a reasonable proxy measure when attempting to ascertain an institution's commitment to college access for first-generation, low-income, and minority students. Not everyone agrees with this approach, however, and critics have a good point: Just enrolling Pell Grant students is not sufficient to ensure their success; more has to be done to ensure they graduate, and the Pell Grant today represents a fairly paltry amount in the context of $70,000 cost-of-attendance figures. Unfortunately, the gap is likely to grow in future years.

Still, the multiple positive correlations of student/family income, standardized test scores, selectivity, and institutional wealth all predict against an institution's Pell Grant participation rates (with public institutions in California generally being a shining exception). About 40% of college students in the US received a Pell Grant, a rate often four times more than are enrolled at the nation's wealthiest, most selective institutions.

Use this data to ask questions about your institution in context:

  • Do you expect to raise SAT scores while increasing Pell participation?
  • If so, do you understand the tradeoffs associated with that challenge, and the resources necessary to pull it off?
  • If you work at a Land Grant Institution, are you serving students in your state the way other colleges are?
  • And if you believe in access for low-income students, are you convinced our government is doing what it can to put a college education in reach of those students? If not, consider how at our own campuses we can effect change in that regard.

While Pell tells only a small part of the story of American higher education, in some sense it tells the best part: Our belief that talent—no matter who possesses it—should be developed to its fullest, and that we all win when it is.