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Colleges Are Supposed to Report Pell Graduation Rates -- Here's How to Make Them Actually Do It

Published:  October 30, 2013
​Since 2008, the federal government has spent nearly $200 billion on the Pell Grant program. We know that this sizeable investment has bought a 50 percent increase in the number of people getting these awards. But how many graduates did these funds produce? What percentage of the individuals graduate? And which schools are doing the best with the lowest-income students?

Congress wanted to know the answer to all these questions. That’s why it included requirements in the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) that required colleges to disclose the graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients, students who did not receive Pell but got a Subsidized Stafford Loan, and individuals who got neither type of aid. But it only asked institutions to disclose this information, either on their websites or potentially only if asked for it, not proactively report it to the Department of Education. The results have gone over about as well as a voluntary broccoli eating contest with toddlers. A 2011 survey of 100 schools by Kevin Carey and Andrew Kelly found that only 38 percent even complied with the requirement to provide these completion rates, in many cases only after repeated phone calls and messages.

Absent institutional rates, the only information of any sort we have about Pell success comes as often as the Olympics, when the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the Department updates its large national surveys. These data are great for broad sweeping statements, but cannot report the results for individual institutions, something that’s especially important given the variety of outcomes different schools achieve. Instead, these surveys can only provide information about results by either the sector or Carnegie type of institution. And the surveys are too costly to operate more frequently.

Fortunately, there’s a chance to fix this problem and get colleges to report this completion data. The Department is currently accepting comments on its plans for data collection under the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for the next several years (see here to submit a comment, here for the notice announcing the comment request, and here for the backup documentation of what the Department wants to do). This means there’s an opportunity for the public to provide suggestions before the comment period closes on November 14 as to what additional information IPEDS should include
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To be clear, a lot of what the Department is already proposing to add into IPEDS through this collection will help us get a significantly better understanding of student outcomes in postsecondary education. First, it would implement some recommendations from the Committee on Measures of Two-Year Student Success, which Congress called for in the 2008 HEA reauthorization to capture students that are not currently captured in the federal graduation rate because they are not full-time students attending college for the first time. The committee’s recommendations, which are being implemented here, aim to capture those missing students by requiring colleges to reporting on the success rates of three additional groups: (1) students who are enrolled part-time and attending for the first time, (2) those who are enrolled full-time and have attended college elsewhere, and (3) those who are enrolled part-time and have attended college elsewhere.  Colleges would then report how many of these students either received an award, are still enrolled, transferred, or dropped out after six and eight years. And it will start this reporting retroactively so that the public won’t have to wait until 2023 to find out the first results.

Other proposed changes to IPEDS are smaller-scale but also important. Colleges would be asked to provide information on the use veterans benefits on their campuses. And the way for-profit colleges report their finances data would be better-aligned with the way public and private non-profit colleges provide this information.
But these changes still leave us without one obvious set of completion information—rates disaggregated by socioeconomic status. Sure, attending full-time can be a proxy for a student’s financial circumstances, but not as definitively as getting a Pell Grant.

The Institute for College Access and Success and others have already argued that the Department should add these data into IPEDS. In response, NCES has noted that improvements to the federal student aid database may make it possible to calculate completion rates for Pell students. But that’s an incomplete solution. That database is legally prohibited from collecting information on students that don’t get federal student aid, so there’s no way to produce the HEA-mandated graduation rate for students who received neither Pell Grants nor subsidized Stafford loans.

Of course, you can’t bring up any discussion of data reporting without running into the “B” word: burden. But remember, this isn’t new burden—colleges are legally required by an act of Congress to provide these graduation rates. Any huge encumbrance these represent (and I’d argue it’s probably not much since you would just be taking a subset of an existing cohort that has easy to identify characteristics based on student aid receipt) has already occurred. In fact, U.S. News and World Report is already getting some schools to provide this information, but it won't share the raw data.

In an ideal world, we would not have to beg and plead with colleges to tell us whether they are successfully using the more than $30 billion they receive each year to educate low-income students. Instead, we would have a student unit record system capable of processing all this information without adding burden to colleges or forcing them to rely on costly alternatives like the National Student Clearinghouse. But thanks to Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and the college lobby (primarily the private institutions), we don’t live in that world. Instead, we’re left with IPEDS where these data should be.  

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