By: Shayna Cohen

With approximately two out of every three high school graduates enrolled in university or college, higher education is an expectation for adults in the United States. By working hard in college, people hope to increase their social standing, job prospects, and earning potential

However, affording the high price tag of these aspirations often requires loans, which can disadvantage low-income students. College financing programs, such as Pell Grants, intend to respond to the struggles of underprivileged students by offering financial support. Unfortunately, a lack of accountability in the Pell Grant program means that the financial support does not always translate into a college degree, especially when compared to their non-Pell grant receiving peers. 

Students from a lower socioeconomic background have historically struggled to afford college. To address this problem, the Pell Grant was created in 1972. Financed and coordinated by the federal government, Pell Grants subsidize higher education for students from low-income backgrounds. Currently, these grants are the largest source of federal funding for college students, awarding $28.2 million in 2017-2018. Calculating the level of aid for a Pell Grant considers expected family contribution (EFC), estimated cost of college, enrollment status (full- or part-time), and program duration. Applications are coordinated through FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and over 95 percent of funding goes to students from households with an annual income of $60,000 or less. Recipients of a Pell Grant are not burdened by the requirement to pay back the cost. However, the grants do not cover college expenses in full, and recipients often take on debt to supplement costs. 


An analysis of six-year graduation rates among four-year college programs casts doubt on the Pell Grant program’s effectiveness. Across each institution—public, private nonprofit, and private for-profit—non-Pell receiving students are more likely to graduate than their Pell-receiving counterparts. Overall, students who attend a for-profit private college are also far less likely to graduate. 

Since Pell Grants are typically disbursed on a semester basis, funding may cover expenses for students unable to graduate. This scenario creates a flow of money from the government to the institution, with uncertain benefit to students.  For-profit private institutions, for instance, only graduated 20 percent of their Pell Grant recipients. In these instances, the college profits off of Pell Grant students who cycle through with subsidized tuition and never obtain a degree. 

The financing and structure of our higher education system warrants reexamination. The country’s largest source of college funding, the Pell Grant, strives to increase graduation rates and college affordability. This mission is unaccomplished. Pell Grants require reassessment to make college a more viable option for low-income students. Alterations are needed to ensure that recipients benefit from the taxpayer-funded grants, rather than the colleges and universities they attend. Currently, Pell Grants lack a system of accountability—for students, universities, and the government—and strike the question of who is benefiting from the taxpayer money portioned for education.

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