Fewer Poor Students Are Being Enrolled in State Universities–Here’s Why

This post initially appeared at The Conversation, and is co-authored with my Seton Hall colleague Luke Stedrak.

States have traditionally provided funding for public colleges and universities based on a combination of the number of students enrolled and how much money they were allocated previously.

But, in the face of increasingly tight budgets and pressures to demonstrate their effectiveness to legislators, more and more states are tying at least some higher education funding to student outcomes.

As of 2015, 32 states have implemented a funding system that is based in part on students’ performance in at least some of their colleges. In such states, a portion of state funding is based on metrics such as the number of completed courses or the number of graduates.

Research shows that performance-based funding (PBF) has not moved the needle on degree completions in any substantial way. Our research focuses on the unintended consequences of such funding policies – whether colleges have responded to funding incentives in ways that could hurt disadvantaged students.

We find evidence that these systems may be reducing access for low-income students at public colleges.

Just a popular political strategy?

What is performance-based funding (PBF)? And does it improve college completion rates?

Performance funding, the idea of tying funding to outcomes instead of enrollment, was first adopted in Tennessee in 1979. It spread across the country in waves in the 1990s and 2000s, with some states dropping and adding programs as state budget conditions and political winds changed. In this decade, several states have implemented systems tying most or all of state funding to outcomes.

By basing funding on outcomes such as course completions and the number of degrees awarded, PBF has become a politically popular strategy to improve student outcomes. It has received strong support from the Bill and Melinda Gates and Lumina Foundations – two big players in the higher education landscape.

However, the best available evidence suggests that PBF systems generally do not move the needle on degree completions in any substantial way.

For example, a study of Washington state’s PBF program by Nick Hillman of Wisconsin, David Tandberg of Florida State and Alisa Hicklin Fryar of University of Oklahoma showed no effects on associate degree completion at two-year colleges. The study found positive effects on certificates in technical fields that took less time to complete, but those were the ones that were not as valuable in the labor market.

When Tandberg and Hillman conducted a nationwide study, they found no effect overall of PBF programs on degree completions at two-year and four-year colleges.

However, the small number of PBF programs that had been in effect for at least seven years (giving colleges plenty of time to change their practices in response) did appear to increase the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by a few percentage points.

More selective and lower standards

While there is no significant evidence of impact, there have been many unintended consequences of this policy.

There is a growing body of evidence, for example, that shows that colleges may be trying to change both their student body and their academic standards in order to meet the state’s performance goals as well as their own priorities.

A research team at Teachers College who interviewed administrators in three states with “high-stakes” PBF systems (Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee) found that colleges facing PBF were both becoming more selective in accepting students and lowering academic standards among current students in an effort to have more students graduate.

A new study by Mark Umbricht and Frank Fernandez at Penn State and Justin Ortagus at University of Florida used data on incoming students to show that Indiana colleges increased selectivity in response to PBF.

They estimated that Indiana colleges lowered admissions rates by nearly 10 percent and increased ACT scores by nearly a full point compared to similar colleges in other states.

In our research, published recently in the Journal of Education Finance, we examined whether public two-year and four-year colleges nationwide changed how they either received or spent money in response to performance funding systems.

We found that colleges generally did not change spending on instruction or research, but they did see significantly less revenue from federal Pell Grants that are primarily given to students with family incomes below US$60,000 per year, suggesting fewer low-income students enrolled. We estimated a statistically significant decline in Pell revenue of about 2 percent at both two-year and four-year colleges.

We also found that four-year colleges offered more institutional grant aid, potentially in the form of merit-based scholarships to attract higher-income students with a greater likelihood of success.

Implications for policy

Although research suggests that performance funding systems have not been particularly effective in increasing the number of degrees that public colleges grant, the fact is that PBF is being adopted in more states. For example, five more states have adopted PBF since 2014, with additional states debating whether to adopt plans of their own.

We believe, this is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

And many states’ existing funding systems are highly inequitable. They favor research universities over less-selective colleges, even though less-selective colleges enroll the lion’s share of low-income students.

States should consider placing provisions in both their enrollment-based and performance-based funding systems to encourage colleges to continuing to enroll an economically diverse student body.

Several states, such as Arkansas, Ohio and Florida, provide additional incentives for graduating Pell Grant recipients. But states need to ensure that these additional funds are sufficient to encourage colleges to enroll academically qualified students from low-income families as well.

To do this, states would need to take three concrete steps. First, states should provide incentives for colleges to not raise admissions standards beyond what is needed to succeed in coursework. Second, they could also provide additional funds for graduating students who require a modest amount of remedial coursework (courses to build skills of less-prepared students), before taking college-level classes.

And finally, it is important that state policymakers and college leaders have honest conversations about the goals of PBF systems and what colleges need to improve their performance. This could help reduce the unintended outcomes.

Trends in Federal Student Loan and Pell Grant Awards

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid released its newest quarterly update on federal student loan and Pell Grant awards on Friday, and the data (through the end of the 2014-15 academic year) are nothing short of stunning. As shown in the table below, federal student loan volume dropped by nearly $11 billion in 2014-15 to $89.4 billion, the lowest level since before the federal government ended the old bank-based lending program in 2010. Total Pell Grant awards also declined in 2014-15 to $30.3 billion, more than $5 billion below 2010-11 levels. (For more on trends in Pell awards over the last two decades, see my recent post on the topic.)


What could explain such sharp drops in student loan and Pell Grant dollars? Four factors could be at work:

(1) As America slowly continues to climb out of the Great Recession, more students and families may be earning enough money not to qualify for Pell Grants or need to borrow as much in student loans. Unemployment rates are down sharply since 2010, but median real household income has been nearly flat—so this is probably a minor contributing factor.

(2) Americans may be less willing to borrow for college than they were a few years ago, leading to less student loan debt. I’m more concerned about undergraduate students underborrowing for college than overborrowing, particularly as students react to stories about other people’s (atypical) debt loads and concerns about their financial strength. But this is difficult to prove empirically given current data.

(3) Part of the decline in total Pell awards is likely due to changes in the FAFSA formula that reduced the number of students automatically receiving the maximum Pell Grant in 2012-13 and beyond. But this would not explain continued declines in Pell dollars received.

(4) The most likely explanation to me is decreased enrollment due to an improved labor market inducing some individuals to work instead of attend college combined with the collapse of some of the large for-profit college chains. The most up-to-date data from the National Student Clearinghouse (which is available well ahead of federal estimates) show that enrollment has declined at degree-granting colleges each of the past three years, with the largest declines taking place at community colleges and in the for-profit sector. Lower enrollment, particularly among adult students, leads to fewer students taking out loans and receiving Pell Grants.

As the economy continues to slowly strengthen and the for-profit sector continues to sort itself out, I would expect enrollment (and the number of students receiving Pell Grants) to very slowly increase over the next several years. Future trends in student loan debt are less clear. Given the explosion of students enrolling in income-based repayment programs, students (particularly in graduate programs) might have less of an incentive to keep loan amounts in check. Yet, to this point, there doesn’t seem to be a boom in graduate school loans across the board. It would be worth looking at particular colleges with large programs in fields that are especially likely to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness to see if loan amounts there are up by large amounts.

Analyzing Trends in Pell Grant Recipients and Expenditures

This post first appeared at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard blog.

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 2013-14 academic year, and I summarize the data and trends over the last two decades in this post.

For the second year in a row, the number of Pell recipients fell, going from a peak of 9.44 million students in 2011-12 to 8.66 million in 2013-14. 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 13% in the last two years (to 4.87 million), while the number of dependent Pell recipients fell by just 27,000 students to 3.83 million, as shown in the chart below.


Why has the number of Pell recipients declined over the past two years after such a sharp increase between 2008 and 2010? Two factors are at play. First, enrollment at vocationally-oriented colleges (primarily community colleges and for-profit colleges) increases during recessions as displaced workers choose to receive additional training instead of trying to find a job in an awful economy. When the economy gets better, more of these individuals go back to work and forgo college. Second, as the economy has improved, it is likely the case that some families that barely qualified for the Pell Grant during the recession no longer qualified after obtaining a better job.

The next chart shows that the decline in the number of Pell recipients over the last two years is largely due to community colleges and for-profit colleges. The number of Pell recipients at community colleges has declined by 11% since 2011-12, while the number at for-profit colleges has declined by 20% since 2010-11 after more than doubling in the previous five years. This is consistent with enrollment at some of the largest for-profit chains cratering in the last few years due to both the colleges’ actions (such as the University of Phoenix enacting a trial period for students) and actions from regulators (as evidenced in the recent collapse of Corinthian Colleges).


Expenditures for the Pell Grant program declined for a third consecutive year, going from $35.7 billion (in nominal dollars) in 2010-11 to $31.5 billion in 2013-14. However, in inflation-adjusted dollars, Pell spending has still more than doubled since 2007-08.


The big spike in Pell expenditures around 2009 was due to three factors. First, the start of the Great Recession both induced more students to enroll in college and resulted in more students with financial need who met the Pell Grant eligibility criteria. Second, changes to federal laws that took effect in 2009-10 increased the maximum Pell Grant by over $600 and allowed more students to automatically qualify for the maximum Pell Grant by increasing the income threshold (from $20,000 to $30,000) for an automatic zero expected family contribution. Third, students were allowed to receive a Pell Grant on a year-round basis instead of just two semesters during the academic year, driving up short-term costs but potentially helping students complete their studies quicker. In 2011, the year-round Pell provision was repealed and the income threshold for an automatic zero EFC dropped to $23,000 as cost-saving measures. Congress has shown bipartisan interest in allowing year-round Pell again, but changing the income threshold for an automatic zero EFC appears to be off the table for now.

The final chart shows the maximum Pell Grant award (in inflation-adjusted dollars) between 1993-94 and 2013-14. Contrary to what many might expect, the maximum award has increased from $3,696 in 1993-94 to $5,645 today; the average award has also increased from $2,419 to $3,634. But the increase in the Pell Grant’s real value has not kept up with the increasing price of college in all sectors of higher education. As a result, its purchasing power has fallen by two-thirds since 1979.


For those who are interested in learning more about how much in Pell Grant revenue individual colleges receive, I highly recommend the Title IV program volume reports available on Federal Student Aid’s website. In addition to Pell Grant revenue, this site has information on student loan awards going back to the 1999-2000 academic year.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.