Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Pell Grants and Fire Departments

Taxpayers have funneled millions -- nay, billions -- of dollars into fire departments around the country over the years.

And yet, we still have fires.  Clearly, the firefighting paradigm has failed.

I don’t mean to pour cold water on anything, so to speak, but it’s time to reassess the whole “throw money at burning buildings” approach.  Are we really getting our money’s worth?


Of course, most people would quickly identify that argument as ridiculous.  Yet when applied to, say, Pell grants, it gets taken seriously.

This piece from the Hechinger report implies -- “argues” is really too strong a word -- that the Pell grant program is a boondoggle, because it funds students who don’t graduate.  (The headline -- “Billions in Pell Dollars Go To Students Who Don’t Graduate” -- pretty much captures it.)  And it insinuates that colleges are hiding the scandalous truth, presumably with nefarious intent, because if people knew the real rates, they’d rise up in outrage.

It’s a frustrating piece, because it has nuggets of truth.  But the storyline to which it’s wedded manages to obscure what could have been a useful analysis.

First, some basics.  Looking at Pell recipient graduation rates at individual colleges -- even if you looked at all of them -- doesn’t tell you the Pell recipient graduation rate nationally.  Why?


Because students transfer.  A student who starts at Eastern State and then transfers to Western State shows up as a dropout in Eastern State’s numbers -- scandal! -- and doesn’t show up as a graduate in Western State’s numbers, because the grad rate only covers first-time students. So even though you have a college graduate on your hands, you have one college showing a dropout and the other showing nothing at all. Those of us in the community college world have been making this argument for years.  I would expect a serious analyst of financial aid policy to know that.  It’s a basic counting error that contaminates the statistics.

The article also lumps together three separate causes of increased spending on Pell.  One is a rise in the benefit level, though the rise is far smaller than the average growth in tuition during that time.  Leaving out the latter factor would leave the incautious reader with the impression that students are getting more purchasing power, when in fact they’re getting much less.  The second is the Great Recession and its impact on family income; when need goes up, demand for need-driven aid goes up.  And the third is the dramatic increase in the number of applicants.  That has an effect on program costs, but it does nothing to make life cushier for the folks who get grants.  

In fact, as the article obliquely notes but fails to consider, the purchasing power of Pell grants relative to tuition and living costs has gone down.  That, combined with ever-increasing income polarization, is the real story.  I could suggest an alternate headline that would also fit the facts: “Pell Grants Too Small to Make Up for Polarized Society By Themselves.”

The missed opportunity in the piece was here:

“The more Pell students an institution enrolls, these statistics show, the lower their likelihood of graduating.”

Now, that’s potentially interesting.  Why would that be?

My first thought would be to look at other variables.  Did they control for institutional per-student spending?  (I’m guessing no…)  Right now, the colleges with the most low-income students and students of color get the least public support per student.  In fact, most community colleges charge LESS than the full value of a Pell grant, allowing students to apply the remainder to living expenses.  (For some reason, the policy types who champion the Bennett hypothesis consistently ignore that. It’s a hell of a blind spot.)  So by and large, the colleges with the fewest Pell students are also the colleges with the most money per student.  Shockingly, students do better in better-resourced institutions.

But that’s not the story the article wants to tell.  It’s looking for a boondoggle to expose, not an opportunity to create better outcomes for low-income students.

Alternately, one could take a “culture of poverty” view, and say that students from impoverished backgrounds do better when surrounded by people who aren’t from impoverished backgrounds.  What would that imply?

To me, it implies a need for a really serious attack on residential income segregation, as well as a serious attack on income polarization.  If we want a middle class, we have to deliberately create one.  They don’t occur in nature.

Instead, the story notes that despite increasingly inadequate aid, students in expensive places without money to support themselves sometimes struggle.  And it implies that the aid isn’t inadequate enough.

To which I say, when you have an arson epidemic, you don’t cut the fire department.

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