While some college presidents would contend that there are other ways to measure value, it’s hard to argue that much good comes from sending millions of public dollars to schools that spit out students who aren’t earning a living wage and who can’t pay back their loans. As the report notes, the U.S. gave out more than 1 million Pell grants during the 2013-14 school year, many of them to students who are the first in their families to pursue college and who are young people of color. The expenditure cost taxpayers some $4.5 billion.
The grants are intended to help low-income students work their way toward the middle-class through higher education. Yet many of the schools who have very good outcomes for students take relatively few Pell-grant recipients. Just over a quarter of the hundreds of schools where more than 38 percent of students are Pell recipients (the average percentage of Pell students at these schools) graduate at least half their students within six years. “[I]n a measurement we developed called the mobility metric...we found levels of achievement so abysmal as to call into question the very promise of higher education at many of these schools,” Hiler and her co-authors write.
Hiler is careful to point out that there are good exceptions. The historically black Spelman College in Georgia, for instance, graduates more than 70 percent of its students, half of whom receive Pell grants. But a deep dive on what these schools are doing right and to look for commonalities is beyond the scope of Hiler’s report (Spelman didn’t immediately respond to an interview request), and it’s hard to incentivize good behavior, particularly where colleges are worried that admitting more Pell recipients will lower graduation rates.
The difficulty with incentivizing schools to focus on outcomes is largely because there are few consequences for bad behavior. Hiler pointed out that three-quarters of the schools her team studied would be considered “dropout factories” if they were in the K-12 system. At that level, the country’s education laws call for interventions and even closures if schools don’t get better. But at the collegiate level, there are few repercussions for schools who fail to graduate students prepared to enter the workforce.
The report outlines a series of recommendations, among them a call for colleges to do a better job of supporting struggling students and to pay back a portion of their students’ loans where students don’t graduate and find good jobs. Yet when the Obama administration called for a college-ratings plan that involved tying federal aid to such markers, colleges immediately pushed back and the concept gained little traction in Congress. The report also calls for additional assistance for schools that enroll a high number of poor students, similar to Title I funding in the K-12 realm, and a “Pell floor,” where high-performing schools would be required to take some percentage of Pell recipients.
Hiler acknowledges the challenges of incentivizing better behavior from colleges, but says she hopes the conversations will happen as lawmakers consider reauthorizing the nation’s main higher-education law next year. In the meantime, she said, more high schools seem to be taking interest in what happens to their students after senior year, with some schools refusing to let their kids go on school-sponsored trips to colleges with low graduation rates.