Friday Interview: Pell Grants Attract Congressional Scrutiny | Beaufort County Now | Going to college can be an expensive proposition. Tuition has been rising steadily in North Carolina and in other states. Many students receive aid in the form of a federal Pell Grant, but the Pell Grant Program faces problems and needs serious reform. Dr. Jenna Ashley Robinson, director of... | Pell Grants,Jenna Ashley Robinson,Higher Education,Work Force,students,graduation,college,GPA,SAT

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Friday Interview: Pell Grants Attract Congressional Scrutiny

    Publisher's note: The authors of this post are the CJ Staff of the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.

Pope Center's Robinson testifies before subcommittee on program's impact

Jenna Ashley Robinson
    RALEIGH     Going to college can be an expensive proposition. Tuition has been rising steadily in North Carolina and in other states. Many students receive aid in the form of a federal Pell Grant, but the Pell Grant Program faces problems and needs serious reform. Dr. Jenna Ashley Robinson, director of outreach at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, has been studying this issue. She recently shared her research during testimony before a congressional subcommittee. Robinson also discussed the issue with Donna Martinez for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

    Martinez: First of all, congratulations. Quite an honor. Tell us how it is that you ended up on Capitol Hill, and what that experience was like.

    Robinson: Pell Grants have been getting a lot of attention lately, and I think what called Congress' attention to my work was, initially I wrote a paper ... about Pell Grants about a year ago with a colleague, and there's precious little information available about what actually happens after a student gets a Pell Grant. And that's really what we were trying to focus on.

    And because of that kind of lack of information really, there are few people in the field who were ready to talk about what ought to be done about Pell Grants. So I think I was already part of a limited field of people who really have worked on this particular area. And then recently I had been writing more about Pell Grants, trying to really get the message out, and I think the message finally got to the right people up in Washington.

    Martinez: What committee were you before?

    Robinson: It was a Subcommittee on Higher Education in the Work Force.

    Martinez: Your testimony is really interesting — and we're going to talk about that more in just a minute — but what was the reaction of the committee members, since there was so little information before? Were they surprised to find out the data that you actually brought to the table?

    Robinson: Some of them were very surprised. Let me say the reaction was mixed. But I think the most surprising thing to them is that Pell Grants don't, in fact, help everyone who gets them.

    Martinez: I suspect that right now our listeners are saying, "What did she say?" Let's talk a little bit more about that. It would seem to most people that if you're providing a grant to someone to help them to pay for their college education, that's inherently a good thing. But you're questioning that, Jenna. Why?

    Robinson: The main reason is just because we looked at the evidence. I think we went in assuming that, you know, Pell Grants, on net, would be some kind of positive for every student who got one. I mean, here you are; you have a limited amount of money. The government gives you more money. That sounds like it's going to be overall better for you.

    But it turns out that, for a certain portion of the population who get Pell Grants, having a Pell Grant actually doesn't contribute to graduation. It actually makes them less likely to graduate than their peers in the same income group who don't get Pell Grants. And the students for whom that is true are ones who are kind of in the lower middle-income group — so students who are not in poverty, but are not well-to-do. Those students, when they get Pell Grants, just don't seem to respond to them in the way that we would think they would.

    Martinez: Do we have any idea why? One would think that, "OK, you have this grant. It's going to help you to get through," that you'd be motivated to finish, to actually graduate.

    Robinson: Right. I think what the evidence shows — and obviously these are just speculations — but what the evidence seems to show is that students often respond better to loans or to using savings, or money from having worked. And I think what that says to me is, if they've got skin in the game, they're going to work harder for graduation, whereas if it's just a Pell Grant, that's money you never have to pay back. It doesn't give students that necessary extra push toward graduation.

    Martinez: It sounds as if you're harkening back to something that a lot of us learned as kids, whether it's now a college education or the first car or that trip to Disney World: If you have to be the one to help earn the money to get whatever it is you want, you value it more.

    Robinson: Exactly, exactly. And, I mean, the one group that does benefit, though, from Pell Grants are students in extreme poverty. For them, the Pell Grant really is the make or break between "go to college," "not go to college," "graduate," and "not graduate." Because without that Pell Grant, the number of dollars for them that's available is essentially zero.

    Martinez: Now, this is pretty fascinating, Jenna, because it's wonderful that it helps this group of people, but I think some of our listeners might be surprised to hear that grants are being given out to students who are from middle-income families. Why is that? I mean, I thought this was supposed to be a program that helped people who really didn't have money to go to college.

    Robinson: I think part of it is because the formulas that the government uses to decide who gets Pell Grants are very, very complicated. They take into account things like how many students are going at the same time. So if you're from a big family, and you and two of your siblings are in college at the same time, it makes it more likely that one of those students is going to get a Pell Grant.

    It also takes into account how expensive the school is that you're going to. So a student might, for example, get offered a Pell Grant to go to Duke, but not to UNC, because that student has chosen a more expensive university. And that's especially true of students who are kind of above the median, or approaching the median income in the U.S. About 20 percent of those students are attending very prestigious, very expensive universities.

    Martinez: How expensive is this program to the taxpayer?

    Robinson: It changes a little bit from year to year based on how many applicants there are, and where those students end up going to school. But it's generally in the ballpark of $33 billion to $36 billion a year.

    Martinez: And we're talking billion with a B here?

    Robinson: Yes.

    Martinez: So how many students, roughly, are being given these grants?

    Robinson: Again, that changes from year to year. But it is more than a quarter of all the students in the United States.

    Martinez: Does anybody have to pay this money back? Are there any rules that apply to the grants?

    Robinson: There are rules, and it's something called a clawback. So if a student goes to school for a semester and then drops out, within a certain number of parameters, then it's possible for the government to get the money back. But it's not always the case that the government actually does get the money back. Often it gets kind of lost in the shuffle.

    Martinez: When you were before the congressional subcommittee, I suspect that not only were you giving them some basic information like you're discussing with us here, but that you were also making some recommendations. What are those?

    Robinson: First and foremost, we want to restrict Pell Grants to students who are actually in poverty — students who are going to benefit from those grants the most. We also want to restrict the grants to students who are most likely to benefit in terms of academic potential. So one of the recommendations we made is kind of looking at possible criteria to put on Pell Grants for academics, whether those are GPA, having to take certain classes, SAT scores — just something to try to target those Pell Grants to students who are really academically prepared for college work.

    Martinez: Are you talking about trying to cut the overall cost each year of the program? Or are you talking about just changing criteria?

    Robinson: It would cut the overall cost, particularly at first, but I think, as students realized what they needed to do in order to get a grant, it would actually incentivize students to take better courses in high school so they're prepared for college work.

    So I think, overall, the recommendations we made would cut the cost of the program some; certainly not halve it or anything like that, but it would cut the cost some. But it would also make sure that the students who get the grants are actually going to move toward graduation, rather than just getting to college and floundering a little bit, and then maybe dropping out or maybe not getting a credential that's meaningful.

    Martinez: Any time you try to reform any type of program, especially one that is as huge and as well-known as the Pell Grant program, you're going to run into some opposition. Now, you mentioned there was some mixed reaction from members of this congressional subcommittee. Is there really the intestinal fortitude from members of Congress to actually change a program like this?

    Robinson: I think that there is certainly some appetite for reform. People know that there are problems with the Pell Grant Program. Even people who are proponents, I think, realize that there are problems. But it will be an uphill climb.


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