The federal government each year gives needy college students billions of dollars they don't have to pay back — $34.5 billion to be exact. More than 9 million students rely on the Pell Grant program. But a new study says much of the money is going to people who never graduate.
Sandy Baum, an expert on student financial aid, has been leading a group in a study of the 48-year-old Pell Grant program. Their report, commissioned by the nonprofit College Board, confirms what many have known for years about grant recipients.
"We have always known that the completion rates are lower than what we'd like them to be," Baum says. "But what we really learned was that there are so many students who are not the traditional Pell Grant student, who are not young people from low-income families but rather are adults seeking to improve their labor force opportunities. So understanding how important Pell Grants are to these students, and how poorly designed they are to actually serve these students, was something of an awakening."
Baum says these are people 25 years and older who were hit hard by the recession — lost their jobs, went back for more training and education, but have struggled to complete their schooling.
Baum says they get little or no guidance about what to study or even what school to choose.
"If you're an adult, you're more likely to see a sign on the bus or hear that your neighbor went to school someplace. You really don't have many options," she says.
Older, nontraditional students, Baum says, now make up nearly half of all Pell Grant recipients, but only 3 percent ever earn a bachelor's degree.
High dropout rates, though, are not limited to older students. Among 18- to 25-year-olds in the program, only a fraction earn a bachelor's degree within six years — often because they're just not ready for college-level work.
Sophia Zaman, a recent graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says Pell Grant recipients like her don't drop out because they can't handle the work — higher tuition and fees push them out.
"I have numerous friends who were unable to afford taking on a fourth year of college because — and my university was not unique — we faced a 16 percent tuition increase," she says.
Zaman, who now lobbies Congress on behalf of the U.S. Student Association, says the $8,600 she received in Pell Grants over four years wasn't enough. She still had to work three part-time jobs to make ends meet.
Researchers agree that Pell Grants cover only a fraction of what they once covered. Their key finding, however, is that the Pell Grant program must now serve two equally needy but very different populations — young and old.