Finances play a significant role in student success, which we define as degree completion and skills mastery. Students need to feel secure in their ability to pay tuition in order to focus on the meat and potatoes of college life: academics and extracurriculars. The Pell Grant is public aid given to students with demonstrated need. What we know about Pell Grants follows:
Pell Grants are less than one-third of the total amount of federal aid, accounting for about $35 billion in spending. They are the most targeted form of assistance, focused on students with family incomes of less than about $60,000, with the bulk of the dollars going to people with family incomes of around $30,000. For the 2013–14 school year, the maximum award [was] $5,645. Pell Grant spending has grown rapidly in recent years but mostly because of increased enrollment and not because the grants are particularly generous. Indeed, the awards have declined in value relative to the costs of college.
When we think of the average price of a four-year degree marking in at somewhere between $80-$200k, of course, we start to wonder if the Pell Grant actually makes a difference in college affordability, or is it more like icing on an already expensive education cake. With the rise of college tuition, these grants figure less in college affordability now than in the past.
Student success is front and center for higher education institutions because only 60% of college students graduate with a degree in 6 years. We also see a disparity in graduation rates between Pell and non-Pell students. A recent “study found 51 percent of Pell students graduate nationwide, compared to 65 percent of non-Pell students. The average gap between wealthy and poor students at the same schools is much smaller: an average of 5.7 percentage points. That’s because many Pell students attend schools with low graduation rates.” Pell Grants may not be helpful in paying for a bulk of an expensive degree, but they do indicate who needs greater support to stay enrolled throughout their college career.
Pell grants do not extend far to support four year degrees, i.e., large public institutions or private liberal arts colleges. Here’s what’s happening at the most selective colleges: “Harvard ($35.9 billion endowment), Princeton ($20.9 billion endowment), and Yale ($23.9 billion endowment) all give generous support and even free tuition to low-income students. But they do not enroll many of them. At Harvard, only 10 percent of the students receive Pell Grants.” To deepen the disparity, a recent study revealed that many lower-income but academically qualified students don’t know what they are eligible for and don’t apply to selective schools.
Importantly, Pell Grants can be quite effective at community colleges, covering the costs of classes, books, and supplies. Who attends which kind of institution largely depends on socioeconomics. In fact, “community colleges in the U.S. serve about 11 million students, representing 45 percent of the nation’s college population. Students enrolled in two-year, as compared with four-year schools, look very different, with about 60 percent in community colleges drawn from the bottom two rungs of the most economically disadvantaged families, while most students at four-year colleges are from the country's most financially secure ones—a widely acknowledged disparity.” The students from backgrounds with challenges to resources who find themselves awarded Pell grants at four-year Universities are the students who may benefit from more personalized support throughout their college careers.
Using financial data in conjunction with university engagement and academic performance, colleges can target specific students with more attention and support; aid is not always financial, it can mean simply having someone there to answer your seemingly mundane questions and help you navigate your college choices to ensure a success that isn’t necessarily tied exclusively to graduation. It includes the mastery of skills, emotional maturity, and preparedness for the many responsibilities associated with adult life after college. A recent Vox piece highlighted that a chatbot programmed to text students with helpful reminders proved quite successful for helping high school seniors follow through with their intentions for college come enrollment in the fall. Support for student success can take many different forms to achieve the same goal: helping students complete their degree programs with real-world skills mastered.
What can predictive modeling do to assess and eliminate the disparity between graduation rates of students who receive financial aid and those who do not? Particularly when we know that a student is less likely to complete their degree if they do receive adequate financial support for the duration of their degree programs? Complex, multi-factored data analysis can reveal the specific factors that lead a student to leave their degree. When using the statistics associated with a student’s financial situation, predictive models can provide a more nuanced understanding of the other factors that apply to drop out. With knowledge comes clarity and responsibility.