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December 19, 2012 10:00 AM Promising Pell Grants Early

By Daniel Luzer

Two researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison estimate that promising future Pell grants, money for college education that the federal government provides to students from low income families, to eighth graders could increase college enrollments and graduation rates.

According to a paper by Robert Kelchen (who worked on the magazine’s 2012 college ranking) and Sara Goldrick-Rab:

In this study, we examine the feasibility of a potential federal early commitment program that would give the maximum Pell Grant to students who receive means-tested benefits [largely free and reduced price lunch] in grade 8. This program would simplify the financial aid process for eligible students while giving them time to academically prepare for college.

Because other researchers, and states and municipalities, have found that promising money for college to younger students results in students saving for college, greater college attendance, and higher high school graduation rates, Kelchen and Goldrick-Rab attempted to discover if the same principle could apply to Pell grants. Could merely letting poor students know about coming money for college make them more likely to complete college?

Apparently it could. The researchers found that the promise of Pell grants could improve college retention by three percentage points and college enrollment rates would increase by four points.

This is, oddly enough, a pretty simple way to increase college participation and graduation and, in truth, much cheaper than a town pledging money to students for eventual college.

In fact federal policy already “promises” Pell grant money to all students who qualify for the program. And if a student is receiving free and reduced price lunch in 8th grade it’s highly unlikely his parents are going to make dramatically more money five years later that would make him ineligible for Pell.

That being said, a Pell “promise” is a little risky. In fact Congress has a hard time even guaranteeing steady Pell grant funding from year to year due to continuing problems in the federal budget. How on earth can we be sure enough of our nation’s budget to promise guaranteed funding for low income students five years in the future?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer