By Eric Garneau
Failure to Report
Huge numbers of students take advantage of federal Pell Grants every year - 8.1 million did in 2009-2010, according to Community College Times - but how are those students actually doing in college? The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA) requires schools to disclose Pell Grant graduation rates to prospective students, but a report released on November 3 entitled 'The Truth Behind Higher Education Disclosure Laws' shows that schools aren't doing a very good job.
According to the report's authors, only 38 out of 150 surveyed colleges disclosed Pell Grant graduation rates in accordance with the law (although 50 schools didn't respond to the authors' inquiries, which could skew the data a bit). Troublingly, one college even answered authors' questions about Pell graduation rates by asking 'Why do you want this information?'
The report's authors show kindness to the offending institutions, suggesting, for instance, that they may not even be aware of federal regulations regarding such disclosure. That doesn't really change the core issue, though: if this data isn't made readily available, HEOA isn't doing its job, and countless hopeful students dependent on grants can't get a clear picture of what their future may hold.
Why Disclosure's Important
Numerous provisions were loaded into 2008's HEOA to give students a more level ground on which to make a decision about college, as well as to make colleges more accountable for how they serve their charges. That includes required transparency on the part of universities when it comes to textbook pricing and credit-transfer policies. Pell Grant graduation rates, too, are important for incoming students to know - they're a useful metric of how well students of a similar financial background can expect to do at a given institution.
It's all a numbers game. If you go to a school that serves a large number of Pell students, and those students' 6-year graduation rate is only 25%, you can reasonably assume that, all else being equal, you've got about a 1:4 shot of graduating in a timely fashion. That can be a big help when it comes time to picking where you go to school - after all, wouldn't you want a place that gives you the best chances of success? But when only about 25% of schools surveyed report that information, you're walking blind into the other three-quarters of higher education institutions, and the good intentions behind HEOA aren't delivering results.
What's to Be Done
Report authors come to a stark, simple conclusion: the requirement to report data like Pell Grant graduation rates, while a nice gesture, isn't enough. Without some kind of accountability or standardized disclosure process, a mandate to make such data available isn't all that useful. Each institution can interpret what such transparency means for themselves, and while for some that means making such data available on their websites, others will only report it when asked, if at all. Then the onus to obtain such information falls on the student, and if they don't know how to go about getting it - or even that they can get it at all - the HEOA's disclosure provisions become only an empty gesture that don't actually do any good.
Report authors Kevin Carey and Andrew P. Kelly make an obvious suggestion for alleviating this situation: a central database, curated by the U.S. Department of Education, which schools are required to disclose their Pell graduation rates to. HEOA already took steps to establish such a database with the College Affordability and Transparency Center; one might imagine that it's not too much of a departure to include Pell rates in a federal database as well.
Carey and Kelly suggest that schools may be hesitant to report Pell graduation rates because it's embarrassing for them to have so little success to show. But isn't HEOA designed to put pressure on these schools and hopefully produce some of that success? In 2008 the federal government took a major step towards making schools more accountable to the students who pay them. Now it seems they need to take another one.
What keeps low-income students from financial success?