Improving Data to Better Serve Low-Income Students

A student walks across the lawn in front of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, on February 20, 2013.

On April 18, 2016, the Center for American Progress submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Education on how to improve proposed data collection and reporting on the graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients. Read the full comment letter here.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education proposed an important new addition to its annual data collection from institutions of higher education: graduation rates of federal Pell Grant recipients. These data will allow students, colleges, and policymakers to see how student outcomes vary by institution and how well institutions are serving the needs of low-income students. While this is a necessary and welcome development, the way in which the data would be collected and reported must be improved.

Pell Grants are a form of financial aid that the government provides to low-income students to help them pay for college. The Pell Grant program is a significant investment in students and colleges, with more than 8.5 million recipients at an annual price tag of more than $31.5 billion in the 2013-14 school year. Up until now, however, little has been known about how Pell Grant recipients are faring in college—or how well colleges are serving them. Although the Department of Education surveys colleges annually on student graduation rates, it does not require schools to report rates specifically for Pell recipients.

Adding this measure is therefore an important step, and the Center for American Progress applauds the department for addressing the outcomes of all students. However, the proposed manner in which the data will be collected and reported raises concerns about its usefulness. CAP’s comments provide the following four recommendations for how the Department can ensure that these data are comparable to other available data sources and allow for meaningful comparisons across different colleges. Doing so will ensure that the data provide a clear picture of how well colleges serve students across the income spectrum.

1. Do not combine Pell Grant recipients of varying enrollment and attendance patterns

As proposed, Pell recipients would be grouped into a single cohort. The cohort would include first-time, full-time, part-time, and transfer students. This methodology is problematic because students with such varying educational paths have different attendance patterns and graduation rates. For example, among students entering college in 2009, full-time students at public four-year institutions had a 70 percent six-year completion rate, while part-time students had only a 15.7 percent completion rate. Combining the completion rates of full- and part-time students would make it difficult to discern whether a school’s Pell completion rate was an actual measure of low-income student outcomes or merely reflective of enrollment and attendance patterns.

Furthermore, as the Postsecondary Data Collaborative notes, Pell recipients attend part-time and transfer at different rates than their peers who do not receive Pell Grants. For example, among students entering college in 2003-04, 14 percent of Pell recipients began as part-time students, and 25.9 percent of Pell recipients transferred at some point during their postsecondary education. On the other hand, 24.1 percent of these non-Pell recipients started as part-time students, and 31.6 percent transferred. These differences would make it difficult to compare outcomes between recipients and nonrecipients.

Instead of a combined standalone cohort, Pell recipients should be disaggregated as sub-groups of each of the four Outcomes Measures, or OM, survey cohorts: full-time first-time students; part-time first-time students; full-time non-first-time students; and part-time non-first-time students. Doing so would ensure that the data are meaningful enough to make comparisons across institutions. The disaggregation also would make it easy to create a comparison cohort of non-Pell recipients.

2. Require nondegree-granting institutions to report Pell outcomes

Students and policymakers need to be able to understand Pell-recipient outcomes at both degree- and nondegree-granting institutions. However, non-degree granting institutions are currently not required to complete the OM survey; this means they would not have to submit data on Pell recipients’ graduation rates. Given that nondegree-granting institutions serve more than 400,000 Pell recipients—and receive more than $1.6 billion in federal Pell Grant funding—each year, students, policymakers, and the public need to be aware of completion outcomes. They also need to know how well such institutions are serving low-income students.

3. Report Pell outcomes for 100, 150, and 200 percent of program time

The OM survey only requires institutions to report completion rates six and eight years after entry. Although these data can be valuable, outcomes also need to be known much earlier. This is particularly true for two-year community colleges, where colleges need to know completion rates on a shorter timeline. Having access to earlier completion rates could provide prospective low-income students valuable decisionmaking information. To address this problem, the Department of Education should create reporting requirements for 100, 150, and 200 percent of program time in the OM survey.

4. Add Pell outcomes data to the Graduation Rate Survey

While the Graduation Rate Survey is limited in that it only measures completion rates for first-time full-time students, it does offer the ability to disaggregate outcomes by race, gender, and associate/certificate-seeker status. It also includes completion rates at 100, 150, and 200 percent of time. Pell Grant receipt should be added as a disaggregate so that the outcomes of these first-time full-time students are consistent and comparable to other commonly used graduation rate information from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.


If included in the Department of Education’s current proposal, CAP’s four recommendations would provide students, colleges, and policymakers with valuable information on the graduation rates of low-income students at each college and university in the United States. These changes would improve collective understanding and ensure that low-income students can make informed decisions about higher education.

Antoinette Flores is a Policy Analyst on the Postsecondary Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.