Exploring Trends in Pell Grant Receipt and Expenditures

The U.S. Department of Education released its annual report on the federal Pell Grant program this week, which is a treasure trove of information about the program’s finances and who is receiving grants. The most recent report includes data from the 2012-13 academic year, and I summarize the data and trends over the last two decades in this post.

Pell Grant expenditures decreased from $33.6 billion in 2011-12 to $32.1 billion in 2012-13, following another $2.1 billion decline in the previous year. After adjusting for inflation, Pell spending has increased 258% since the 1993-94 academic year.

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Part of the increase in spending is due to increases over the maximum Pell Grant over the last 20 years. Even though the maximum Pell Grant covers a smaller percentage of the cost of college now than 20 years ago, the inflation-adjusted value rose from $3,640 in 1993-94 to $5,550 in 2012-13.

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The number of Pell recipients has also increased sharply in the last 20 years, going from 3.8 million in 1993-94 to just under 9 million in 2012-13. However, note the decline in the number of independent students in 2012-13, going from 5.59 million to 5.17 million.

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Recent changes to the federal calculation formula has impacted the number of students receiving an automatic zero EFC (and the maximum Pell Grant), which is given to dependent students or independent students with dependents of their own who meet income and federal program participation criteria. Between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the maximum income to qualify for an automatic zero EFC dropped from $31,000 to $23,000 due to Congressional action, resulting in a 25% decline in automatic zero EFCs. Most of these students still qualified for the maximum Pell Grant, but had to fill out more questions on the FAFSA to qualify.

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The number of students receiving a zero EFC (automatic or calculated) dropped by about 7% from 2011-12, or about 400,000 students, after more than doubling in the last six years. Part of this drop is likely due to students choosing a slowly recovering labor market over attending college.

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UPDATE: Eric Best, co-author of “The Student Loan Mess,” asked me to put together a chart of the average Pell award by year after adjusting for inflation. Below is the chart, showing a drop of nearly $500 in the average inflation-adjusted Pell Grant in the last two years after a long increase.

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I hope these charts are useful to show trends in Pell receipt and spending over time, and please let me know in the comments section if you would like to see any additional analyses.

The Starbucks-ASU Online Program: More Short than Venti?

I’ve got a piece in today’s Inside Higher Ed explaining why I don’t think Starbucks’s partnership with Arizona State University Online will result in a large number of degree completions. Starbucks is getting a lot of great PR for this program, some of which is deserved for making an opportunity available and for working with Inside Track to provide additional counseling to students. However, the conditions set forth in the announcement (extremely delayed reimbursement, the last-dollar nature of the program, and only one participating online institution) makes it unlikely that the takeup rate will be very high.

Read the piece and let me know what you think!

The Ticking Student Loan Time Bomb: The Forgiveness Tax

What to do about the rising amount of student loan debt has recently taken center stage in domestic policy discussions, as the average student who completes a bachelor’s degree and takes out debt now has a student loan burden of around $30,000. Media reports love focusing on those with much larger amounts of debt—who tend to either have graduate degrees or went to colleges with high costs of attendance—but these students are a minority. The past week has seen proposals by members of Congress and President Obama to reduce the burden on those who leave college with debt. Below are summaries of the three main proposals and what they mean for students and taxpayers.

Proposal 1: President Obama’s extension of more generous income-based repayment (IBR) terms. He signed an executive order authorizing the Department of Education to enter the federal rulemaking process in order to extend IBR terms that apply to current Direct Loan borrowers retroactively for those who borrowed before 2007 or those who have not borrowed since 2011. Once approved (no sooner than 2015), borrowers could pay 10% of their discretionary income over 20 years instead of 15%. This proposal has gained support from many in the higher education community, but there are concerns about costs and whether the President has the authority to act without Congressional approval.

Proposal 2: Sen. Warren (D-MA)’s proposal to refinance student loans. She has introduced multiple proposals to lower interest rates, including one to lower rates to 0.75% (which I called “a folly”). Her most recent proposal would allow students to refinance federal and some private loans at the current subsidized Stafford loan interest rate (3.86%). President Obama endorsed the plan when he signed his executive order, but the likelihood of the plan passing is fairly low. It is expected to cost about $55 billion (a number highly dependent on how many borrowers actually refinance), and is paid for by a surtax on millionaires. While passing the Democrat-controlled Senate is possible, it is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled House.

Proposal 3: Sen. Warner (R-VA)’s and Thune (R-SD)’s proposal to allow employers to contribute pre-tax dollars to help repay employees’ loans. This proposal came as a surprise, particularly the provision that borrowers would have to refinance in the private market before participating in the program. No cost information is currently available to the best of my knowledge, and this proposal is unlikely to pass.

While all three of these proposals could help at least some borrowers in the short run, none of them do anything to affect the main reason behind the growth in student loans: the rising cost of college. If anything, making it easier to repay loans has the potential to increase college costs as colleges’ incentives to reduce costs are decreased. This fits in with the “Bennett Hypothesis,” in which increases in federal financial aid are associated with increased costs. (Evidence to support the hypothesis is mixed.)

Making IBR programs more generous could have serious long-run implications for millions of students. Under current law, students in IBR programs (excluding those in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program) will face a tax bill for any balance forgiven at the end of the loan (typically 10-25 years). President Obama did not mention that when signing the executive order, even though it is likely that many borrowers will face a substantial tax burden when their loan is forgiven. If a remaining balance of $30,000 is forgiven (on the low end of the likely distribution), the borrower can face a tax burden of $10,000.

The issue of the forgiveness tax has not yet reached center stage, but will do so in the next few years as the first wave of IBR borrowers begin to reach the end of the repayment period. Congress needs to clarify whether the forgiveness tax will remain in place in order to give borrowers as much information as possible. Congress can choose to eliminate the tax, but the loss of revenue must be offset elsewhere in the federal budget through spending cuts or tax increases. Or they can keep the tax, but could consider spreading out the burden over multiple years.

Thinking about the long-term implications of loan forgiveness under IBR is not sexy, and it is not a topic that will resonate with many voters at this point in time. But politicians need to consider the ticking time bomb and how to best defuse it before more Americans enroll in IBR.

Unit Record Data Won’t Doom Students

The idea of a national unit record database in higher education, in which the U.S. Department of Education gathers data on individual students’ demographic information, college performance, and later outcomes, has been controversial for years—and not without good reason. Unit record data would represent a big shift in policy from the current institutional-level data collection through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which excludes part-time, transfer, and most nontraditional students from graduation rate metrics. The Higher Education Act reauthorization in 2008 banned the collection of unit record data, although bipartisan legislation has been introduced (but not advanced) to repeal that law.

Opposition to unit record data tends to fall into three categories: student privacy, the cost to the federal government and colleges, and more philosophical arguments about institutional freedom. The first two points are quite reasonable in my view; even as a general supporter of unit record data, it is still the burden of supporters to show that the benefits outweigh the costs. The federal government doesn’t have a great track record in keeping personally identifiable data private, although I have never heard of data breaches involving the Department of Education’s small student-level datasets collected for research purposes. The cost of collecting unit record data for the federal government is unknown, but colleges state the compliance burden would increase substantially.

I have less sympathy for philosophical arguments that colleges make against unit record data. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU—the association for private nonprofit institutions) is vehemently opposed to unit record data, stating that “we do not believe that the price for enrolling in college should be permanent entry into a massive data registry.” Amy Laitinen and Clare McCann of the New America Foundation documented NAICU’s role in blocking unit record data, even though the private nonprofit sector is a relatively small segment of higher education and these colleges benefit from federal Title IV student financial aid dollars.

An Inside Higher Ed opinion piece by Bernard Fryshman, professor of physics at the New York Institute of Technology and recent NAICU award winner, opposes unit record data for the typical (and very reasonable) privacy concerns before taking a rather odd turn toward unit record data potentially dooming students later in life. He writes the following:

“The sense of freedom and independence which characterizes youth will be compromised by the albatross of a written record of one’s younger years in the hands of government. Nobody should be sentenced to a lifetime of looking over his/her shoulder as a result of a wrong turn or a difficult term during college. Nobody should be threatened by a loss of personal privacy, and we as a nation should not experience a loss of liberty because our government has decreed that a student unit record is the price to pay for a postsecondary education.”

He also writes that employers will request prospective employees to provide a copy of their student unit record, even if they are not allowed to mandate a copy be provided. This sounds suspiciously like a type of student record that already exists (and employers can ask for)—a college transcript. Graduate faculty responsible for admissions decisions already use transcripts in that process, and applications are typically not considered unless that type of unit record data is provided.

While there are plenty of valid reasons to oppose student unit record data (particularly privacy safeguards and potential costs), Professor Fryshman’s argument doesn’t advance that cause. The information from unit record data is already available for employers to request, making that point moot.