Carolina Journal News Reports
Jenna Ashley Robinson
RALEIGH — If anyone in your family has gone to college in recent years, you are probably aware of the Federal Pell Grant Program. A recent report from the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy analyzes the program to determine where the money goes and whether it’s being used effectively. Pope Center outreach coordinator Jenna Ashley Robinson discussed the report with Donna Martinez for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Martinez: What is the Pell grant program, and who qualifies for it?
Robinson: The Pell grant program was started in 1972 to assist low-income students to go to college — a noble goal. Now, over 60 percent of all undergraduate students, and many more community college students, qualify for that Pell grant. So it’s drifted somewhat from its original goals.
Martinez: I always thought of that program as being designed for students who had no resources because their family maybe was at a modest income level, but it sounds like it’s become much more than that.
Robinson: It has been, and there are a couple of reasons why. One reason is that part of the formula includes how expensive the university is that you choose to go to. So, if a student chooses to go to Duke, for example, he or she might qualify, whereas if he went to UNC-Chapel Hill, he wouldn’t.
Another part of it is that the income side of the formula has gotten more generous. So the federal government has started to inch up the qualifications for who actually is low-income. So combining those two things means that a lot more students are qualifying — some who we would consider-middle income and some who come from families making more than $60,000 a year.
Martinez: Sixty-thousand a year — that’s definitely middle-income. Now we’ve heard a lot about loans to go to college, but this is a grant program. So once someone receives the money, is there any accountability for it?
Robinson: Once you get a Pell grant, you do not have to pay it back. The accountability comes in at the end of every school year. So students do have to maintain — I think it’s a C average — and stay in school in order to qualify for a grant the next year. And they do have to be working toward a degree program. But on the way in, there’s very little accountability. All you have to do to get that first Pell grant is to be a high school graduate and to go to an accredited university in a degree program.
Martinez: And fill out the application and you’re good to go.
Robinson: Right. Absolutely.
Martinez: Are recipients required to finish a degree or to graduate from college?
Robinson: They’re not, and, actually, that’s part of the problem because only about 51 percent of Pell recipients do graduate after six years.
Martinez: You’ve given us the data, but what does that data mean? In other words, why did you decide you wanted to look at the program? It’s been going on for decades.
Robinson: Well, a lot of the growth has happened very recently because of changes in those eligibility standards. So we wanted to find out: why has this growth been happening, and what can we do to notch it back a little bit, especially given the large deficits that the federal government has?
And so we came up with a few ideas of how to correct the problem, including limiting Pell grants only to students who actually come from low-income families — students in the bottom income quartile — and introducing some kind of academic component to getting the Pell grant in the first place. As I said, right now all you have to do is graduate from high school. We think it would be better if students had to have a minimum SAT score of about 850 out of 1600 and a minimum GPA of 2.5 before they get a Pell grant in the first place. We think that would encourage students not only to start school but to finish school.
Martinez: Let’s talk a little bit more about some of those recommendations. Let’s get back to income for a moment. You used a phrase, “the bottom income quartile.” What does that mean in dollar terms?
Robinson: In dollar terms, that means families that make less than about $35,000 a year.
Martinez: And right now, you said that families with incomes of $60,000 a year are qualifying for this.
Robinson: Right. Just putting in that one change would save 20 percent of the program’s cost.
Martinez: It would save the cost. But Jenna, I would suspect you’ve already gotten some pushback from people who say that particularly now, in very, very tough economic times, if your recommendation is accepted, there are a lot of 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds in this country who’d simply not be able to attend college.
Robinson: There are many options for students to attend college, some of which I’ve written about in the past. Of course, community college is always a great option, and there are many good transition programs from community college to universities. There are loans, savings, working through college — I mean, many more options than the Pell grants, which are really intended just for the very low income.
Martinez: Let’s talk more about the SAT situation because you’re recommending a minimum of 850 out of 1600. Is there any minimum at all right now?
Robinson: Right now there’s no minimum. And the reason we’re recommending 850 is because students with SAT scores below 850 graduate at a rate of only about 30 percent, whereas students with SAT scores higher than 850 do a lot better. And those with substantially higher scores graduate at a rate of about 75 percent. So, by choosing that cutoff, we’re hoping to target Pell money, which is limited, at only those students most likely to graduate.
Martinez: Did you consider at all recommending a requirement that someone has to graduate, has to earn a degree, or perhaps they owe some of the money back? Or did you deem that a little bit too far the other way?
Robinson: One of the reasons we didn’t look at it is because the federal government is already having problems collecting on so many of the students who had gotten loans who are in default. In fact, there are many, many students who have started defaulting on their loans. The federal government recoups only a very small fraction of that amount. So given the federal government’s problems with recouping that money, we thought adding Pell to the list of things they need to try to recoup really wouldn’t be very effective.
Martinez: A little bit more unrealistic to try to do that. Well, you’ve talked about narrowing the eligibility. Let’s look at the other side of the program. You mentioned it a few minutes ago — the rising cost of college tuition. Why is it going up? I mean, why is it that every year, it just seems to cost more to attend college and helps with this spiral?
Robinson: Right. One of the things that we’ve been looking at is something called the Bennett Hypothesis. That hypothesis is that, the more money comes in, in terms of grants, in terms of loans, the more colleges are going to raise tuition to recoup that money.
Even though we think of universities as nonprofit entities, they’re still profit maximizers. They have goals they want to reach, in terms of fundraising, in terms of research outcomes, and in terms of all the programming that they want to do. So any money that they can take in, in terms of Pell grants, or in terms of loans, they will raise the tuition to maximize the amount of money that they can get out of students to go toward the programs that they want to put in place.
Martinez: Jenna, you mentioned other options for people to get funds in order to pay college tuition. But a lot of people these days seem to believe that, somehow, a college education is a “right” and that they shouldn’t have to pay for it. So what happens when you make these recommendations? What kind of reaction do you expect to get from people who consider a college education a “right?”
Robinson: We expect to get a lot of pushback. And to these people, I would have to say they should start looking at the payoffs that you get from college. They are not what they used to be. They require a good deal of responsibility and dedication on the part of the student. A degree isn’t what it used to be. It isn’t worth as much as it used to be in the past. So demanding that as a “right,” really, it won’t get them everything that they think it will.