You may think the Pell Grant program helps low-income kids pay for college. That was its original intent, and it still does that. But the fact is, the Pell Grant program has expanded well beyond that goal, with many middle-income students now receiving the grants. What’s more, only about half of the recipients graduate in six years. Recently I talked with Dr. Jenna Ashley Robinson of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy about her analysis of the program and her recommendations for reform. Here’s an excerpt from our Carolina Journal Radio interview.
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.