Examining Trends in Pell Grant Award Data

The U.S. Department of Education recently released its annual report on the federal Pell Grant program, which provides detailed information about the program’s finances and who is receiving grants. The most recent report includes data from the 2014-15 academic year, and I summarize the data and trends over the last two decades in this post. (Very preliminary data on Pell receipt for the first three quarters of the 2015-16 academic year can be found in the Title IV program volume reports on the Office of Federal Student Aid’s website.)

For the third year in a row, the number of Pell recipients fell, going from a peak of 9.44 million students in 2011-12 to 8.32 million in 2014-15 (a 12% decrease). This drop in recipients is almost entirely due to students who are considered independent for financial aid purposes (typically students who are at least 24 years of age, are married, or have a child). The number of independent Pell recipients fell by 18% in the last three years (to 4.56 million), while the number of dependent Pell recipients fell by just 2.7% (to 3.75 million), as shown in the chart below. However, independent students still make up the majority of Pell recipients, as they have every year since 1993.


There has been an even larger drop in the number of students with zero expected family contribution, who automatically qualify for the maximum Pell Grant. (For more on these students, check out this article I wrote in the Journal of Student Financial Aid last year.) Nearly 900,000 fewer students received a zero EFC since 2011-12, with decreases of 9% among dependent students and 17% among independent students.


In the next chart, I show the number of students receiving Pell Grants by sector since 1993. The number of Pell recipients dropped by almost 225,000 students at community colleges and 230,000 students at for-profit colleges between 2013-14 and 2014-15, while Pell enrollment at both public four-year and private nonprofit colleges increased by about 55,000 students each. Since 2011-12, community college Pell enrollment is down by 17% and for-profit Pell enrollment is down 26%, while other sectors are basically flat. These trends fit well with economic conditions, as more vocationally-oriented colleges see enrollment spikes during recessions and sizable drops during better times (like today).


Expenditures for the Pell Grant program declined for a fourth consecutive year, going from $35.7 billion (in nominal dollars) in 2010-11 to $30.6 billion in 2014-15. However, in inflation-adjusted dollars, Pell spending has still more than doubled since 2007-08.


The large decrease in Pell expenditures led to a $7.8 billion surplus in the Pell program going forward, but Congress has plans to spend part of that surplus. A U.S. Senate subcommittee approved bringing back year-round Pell Grants (an idea with strong bipartisan support that would allow students to get Pell Grants for more than two full-time semesters per year) as well as transferring some of the funding to the National Institutes of Health and K-12 education. But will Pell expenditures continue to drop? It’s possible if the economy continues to improve while parts of the for-profit college sector continue to collapse, but the trend toward a more economically diverse group of young adults will likely increase Pell enrollment in future years.

The Tradeoffs of Making Private Student Loan Debt Dischargeable in Bankruptcy

There is an old adage dating back to the 1700s that the two most certain things in life are death and taxes. But for families with certain types of student loans, having to make payments on their loans is another certainty. Students used to be able to discharge educational loans in bankruptcy, but that ability was first restricted in 1976 before being fully eliminated for federal loans by 1998 and private student loans in 2005. The growth of income-driven repayment programs for federal loans reduces the need to discharge these loans in bankruptcy, as payments would instead be zero if a student signs up for this plan and earns below the poverty line.1 But private loans, which are about $10 billion per year, generally do not offer income-based repayment options.

Neal Hutchens of the University of Mississippi and Richard Fossey of the University of Louisiana have an interesting new piece up at The Conversation that argues that private student loan debt should once again be dischargeable in bankruptcy. They contend that more students should be able to meet the “undue hardship” test for paying off private loans, which includes both having low income and making a good-faith effort to repay loans. Senate Democrats, such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have pushed for making private loans dischargeable in bankruptcy, and the Obama Administration has expressed interest in the idea.

But making private student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy would likely come with two main drawbacks for borrowers. The first one is that private lenders would significantly increase their standard for creditworthiness, thus rejecting students who need money for college but do not (and their co-signer does not) have outstanding credit. The second one is that interest rates would rise to take into account the increased risk that borrowers do not repay their loans. Currently, the terms on private loans are generally comparable to PLUS loans. If a student gets denied a PLUS loan (or a college doesn’t package a PLUS loan into a student’s financial aid package), the terms on private loans may become so bad that students and parents don’t wish to consider this option—even with the protection that discharging a loan in bankruptcy would offer.

The traditional market for private student loans is at a crossroads right now, with the terms on many types of federal student loans getting much better in recent years while the growing student loan refinancing market and the potential for income share agreements have the potential to threaten traditional lenders’ business models. But in the meantime, advocates for allowing students to discharge private loans in bankruptcy need to carefully consider the tradeoff between protecting some of the most vulnerable students who fall upon hard times and potentially restricting access to needed credit for other students to attend college. Which of these two factors is more important? It’s hard to tell at this time, but both need to be carefully considered by policymakers.


1 Parent PLUS loans qualify for a far less generous income-driven repayment plan than all other federal loans, but payments would still be zero if the parent earned below the federal poverty line

Which Factors Affect Student Fees?

Tuition increases tend to get the most focus in discussions about college affordability, but a number of other factors also affect the total price tag of a college education. In addition to researching living allowances for off-campus students, I have looked into the often-confusing world of student fees at public colleges. These fees are used for a variety of purposes, such as supporting core instructional activities, funding athletics, paying for student activities, or even seismic safety. The University of California-Santa Cruz lists over 30 mandatory fees that all undergraduates must pay, ranging from $.75 per year to fund a marine discovery center to $1,020 per year for student services. At the typical four-year public college, student fees were nearly $1,300 in the 2012-13 academic year, roughly 20% of median tuition and nearly double their 1999-2000 rate after adjusting for inflation.

In a new article that was just published in The Review of Higher Education, I used a panel regression framework to explore potential institution-level and state-level factors affecting student fee levels between the 2001-02 and 2012-13 academic years.  For institution-level factors, I included tuition, the percent of nonresident students, measures of selectivity, and per-student athletics expenditures (a proxy for the magnitude of a college’s athletics program). For state-level factors, I considered appropriations and financial aid levels, economic conditions, whether a tuition or fee cap was in place, who had the ability to set tuition or fees (politicians, state or system boards, or the individual college), and partisan political control in the state.

Given that students subsidized athletics at public colleges to the tune of at least $10 billion over five years, I fully expected to find that higher per-student athletics expenditures would be associated with higher student fees. Yet after controlling for other factors, there was no significant relationship between athletics spending and fees. This could be explained by the small number of high-spending colleges in big-time conferences that come close to breaking even on athletics, or it could be due to my data ending in 2012-13 and larger increases in athletics fees occurring since then. The only significant institution-level factor was tuition—as tuition rose, fees fell. This implies that some colleges likely treat tuition and fees as interchangeable.

More of the state-level factors have statistically significant relationships with student fee levels. States that have capped fee levels do have fees about $128 lower than states without fee caps, but I also found evidence that colleges in states with tuition caps have fees $59 higher. This suggests that colleges will substitute fees for tuition where possible. If a state’s governor and/or legislature can set tuition, fees tend to be lower, but if policymakers can set fees, fees tend to be higher. Finally, partisan political control only has a small relationship with fees, as having a Republican governor is associated with slightly lower fee levels and control of the legislature was not significant.

Given the magnitude of student fees and the relatively small body of research in this area, I hope to see more studies (particularly qualitative in nature) digging into how student fees are set and how the money is supposed to be used compared to its actual uses.

Who Exactly is a “Hard Working” Student?

Most people don’t like giving money to slackers. After all, people who work hard for their money don’t want to hand it over to people who aren’t working so hard—a very reasonable position to take. But the challenge is defining what “hard working” actually means, particularly as individuals’ definitions may differ and it is generally difficult or expensive to observe someone’s effort level. (I’m not the only academic to note this challenge.) A classic example of struggling to define hard work comes from the welfare reform debates of the 1980s and 1990s (which eventually resulted in major welfare reform in 1996) and has clear linkages to higher education debates.

Similar to the famous “welfare queen” example that Ronald Reagan first used in 1976 of a woman who defrauded the federal welfare system, there have been concerns about “Pell runners”—people who go from college to college in an effort to defraud taxpayers instead of get an education—for years. While the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 2.5% of Pell dollars are improperly spent (either due to fraud or errors by the college or the federal government), there are concerns that students are not putting in sufficient effort to get support from the federal government. In 2011, then-Representative Denny Rehberg (R-MT) called the Pell program “the welfare of the 21st century,” a concern shared by some who point to the billions of dollars each year going to students who do not graduate (although barriers to graduation may include family or financial issues in addition to academic success or work ethic).

Politicians supporting increased funding for financially needy students have taken great care to explain how their plan helps “hard working” students in an effort to gain political support. For example, President Obama and the White House communications team have repeatedly referred to “hard working” students in describing the administration’s plans for tuition-free community college and other proposals for reform. Obama’s tuition-free community college proposal defines “hard working” as having a 2.5 GPA, enrolled half-time, and making satisfactory progress toward a degree. These requirements are tighter than the Pell Grant’s rules, which require a 2.0 GPA and satisfactory academic progress with no enrollment intensity requirement. Last week, two Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee referred to current Pell recipients as “hard working” in their appeal to use a $7.8 billion surplus in the Pell program to increase awards to current students.

As in most cases in life, it’s worth reading the fine print to see exactly who politicians, advocates, or others consider to be “hard working” students. The term sounds really good, but be wary of people defining the term in such a way that it aligns with their political priorities. I don’t have a perfect definition of what it means to be hard working in college, so I would love your suggestions in the comments section below.