Consider Graduation Rates for Pell Students at Top Schools

College students who receive Pell Grants, a federal grant for low-income students, often have a harder time graduating than their wealthier peers, higher education experts say.

Many are the first in their families to attend college and may not know any graduates whom they can turn to for advice on navigating the higher education system. Plus, low-income students often come from high schools that aren’t college preparatory.

“They may not have had the same range of academics to choose from, like Advanced Placement courses or a more challenging curriculum that would be rigorous enough to prepare them for college-level work at some institutions,” says Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network, which helps economically disadvantaged students get into and complete college.

[Understand these 10 facts about the Pell Grant.]

Students from more moderate incomes may also not have the option to borrow money from a relative. Pell Grant recipients may even be the breadwinners in their families.

For example, Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust, which advocates for students of color and those from poor communities, says that more than 65 percent of black students who receive Pell Grants are financially independent.

He adds, “Forty-one percent of black Pell Grant recipients have a dependent.” The percentages for Latino Pell students are comparable, he says.

These and other factors can at times make attending classes, completing homework and finishing other mandatory school activities impossible and may lead students to delay graduation, experts say.

Experts advise prospective college students from low-income backgrounds to consider the graduation rate for students like them when deciding where to apply and attend school.

“It helps them figure out: Where do they have the best chance of actually getting a degree?” says Jim McCorkell, founder and CEO of College Possible, which provides mentoring and coaching for low-income prospective and current college students.

[Learn how these colleges are offering programs to assist low-income students.]

Among the top 20 ranked National Universities, the six-year graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients who started school in 2010 is typically 90 percent or higher, U.S. News data show. However, this percentage is often slightly lower than the six-year graduation rate for students in that same cohort who did not receive a Pell Grant or subsidized Stafford loan.

At the California Institute of Technology, for example, the six-year graduation rate for Pell students is 85 percent but 94 percent for non-Pell students, according to U.S. News data. It had the lowest six-year graduation rate among the top 20 schools that reported these data.

Four of the top National Universities did not provide U.S. News with the six-year graduation data for its 2010 Pell students: Princeton University in New Jersey and Harvard University in Massachusetts, respectively ranked No. 1 and No. 2, as well as University of Chicago, which is tied for No. 3, and No. 9 Duke University in North Carolina.

Columbia University in New York, tied for No. 5, was among the schools that did not provide U.S. News with six-year graduation rate data for students who did not receive a Pell Grant or subsidized Stafford loan.

Just two schools – New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College and Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University – had a higher graduation rate for Pell students than non-Pell students. Both schools are tied for No. 11.

School (state) U.S. News rank Six-year graduation rate for fall 2010 cohort Six-year graduation rate for fall 2010 cohort recipients of a Pell Grant Six-year graduation rate for fall 2010 cohort who did not receive a Pell Grant or subsidized Stafford loan
Princeton University (NJ) 1 97 N/A 98
Harvard University (MA) 2 97 N/A N/A
Yale University (CT) 3 (tie) 98 98 98
University of Chicago 3 (tie) 94 N/A N/A
Stanford University (CA) 5 (tie) 94 90 95
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 5 (tie) 93 86 94
Columbia University (NY) 5 (tie) 96 94 N/A
University of Pennsylvania 8 95 91 96
Duke University (NC) 9 95 N/A N/A
California Institute of Technology 10 94 85 94
Northwestern University (IL) 11 (tie) 94 94 94
Johns Hopkins University (MD) 11 (tie) 94 95 93
Dartmouth College (NH) 11 (tie) 97 98 97
Cornell University (NY) 14 (tie) 94 94 94
Brown University (RI) 14 (tie) 96 93 96
Vanderbilt University (TN) 14 (tie) 92 87 93
Rice University (TX) 14 (tie) 93 89 94
University of Notre Dame (IN) 18 (tie) 95 92 96
Washington University in St. Louis 18 (tie) 94 92 94
Georgetown University (DC) 20 94 93 95

Del Pilar, from The Education Trust, says graduation rate data don’t tell the whole story, though. It’s also important to consider how many Pell students are in a class.

If only 12 percent of the students in a class are Pell and a school graduates 95 percent of them, that’s not terribly impressive, he says. “You have such a small number, and I would hope you do well with the small number you have.”

[Get the answers to these frequently asked questions about Pell Grants.]

Prospective students can find out more about which schools are admitting Pell Grant students and how these students are performing via the College Results Online, College Navigator and The College Scorecard websites, higher education experts say.

“Going to college is an especially risky thing for low-income students,” says McCorkell, adding that they’ll likely have to borrow money to pay for school and may even have to leave their families to get their education.

“If you’re going to take those risks and you’re going to take on some debt,” McCorkell says, “you sure would like to go to the place that you think you’re going to have the best chance of actually earning the degree and then coming out and getting a good job where you can pay off your loans and enter the middle class.”

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