Report: Pell completion quota threatens access

College access and college success are in conflict, writes Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of and Low-income, minority and other high-risk students are significantly less likely to complete a degree. “One of the easiest ways to increase graduation rates is to exclude high-risk students.”

Kantrowitz analyzes proposals to require colleges to graduate a minimum percentage of Pell recipients to retain eligibility. Community colleges would be “hit the hardest,” he finds. Funding would shift to four-year institutions and to more selective schools.

A 20% minimum graduation rate threshold on institutional Pell Grant eligibility would cut overall Pell Grant funding at community colleges by more than $5 billion. While 4-year for-profit colleges would also lose nearly $1 billion, the for-profit sector as a whole would experience a net gain of more than $500 million in Pell Grant funding.

A 20% minimum graduation rate threshold on institutional Pell Grant eligibility would cause the average graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients to increase by 8.5 percentage points, but there would be a net 1% decrease in the number of college graduates.

Graduation rates are significantly lower for  first-generation college students, low-income students, single parents, students who lack a high school diploma, adults, full-time workers and part-time students, he writes. Pell dollars would shift from the neediest students to those with more advantages.

About one eighth of students pursuing four-year degrees come from high-risk groups, compared with more than half of students in associate’s degree programs and two thirds of students in certificate programs, Kantrowitz writes.

For-profit colleges enroll many high-risk students: Pell recipients at for-profit colleges are less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, but more likely to earn an associate degree or certificate.

Instead of restricting access to Pell Grants, Kantrowitz suggests doubling or tripling the average grant to help low-income students earn degrees.

College graduates pay more than twice as much in federal income taxes as high school graduates. Every dollar invested in the Pell Grant program yields more than two dollars in profit to the federal government over the typical recipient’s work-life.

He calls it a “bold” idea. Yes. And very unlikely.