Pell Grants and Our Graduates’ Success

Jeanne Slattery and Randy Potter

– Randy Potter and Jeanne M. Slattery

Recently, Third Way released a report on the financial outcomes of US institutions of higher education, specifically, they examine three measures of success: 1) college completion; 2) post-enrollment earnings; and 3) loan repayment. They argued, if colleges and universities are successful, most students should graduate, earn a decent living, and pay down their loans over time (Third Way, 2019, para. 2). These are good outcomes, but we believe they can be evaluated more meaningfully.

Clarion University’s success, if we are using these outcomes, is near the bottom of that for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). (The data discussed are drawn from this spreadsheet, with Clarion in row 1525.) Third Way reports 68.2% of our students graduate in 8 years (only Edinboro and Cheyney are lower). Only 56.68% of recent graduates earn more than $28,000 (what an average high school graduate in the US makes). Of State System schools, only Edinboro, Cheyney, and Mansfield have lower earnings. And, only 67.8% of Clarion graduates have paid at least $1 toward their student loans. Of State System schools, only Edinboro, Cheyney, and Mansfield are lower. Finally, 39% of Clarion University students receive Pell Grants. Federal Student Aid (n.d.) observes that Pell Grants are reserved for students with “exceptional financial need.” Only six PASSHE schools have 39% or more of their student body receiving Pell grants: Cheyney, California, Clarion, Edinboro, Lock Haven, and Mansfield.

Looking more closely at these data, we found some interesting things. We have omitted Cheyney University from these analyses, as Cheney is a notable outlier on many of these variables. Correlations are even higher when Cheney is included. We found very high correlations between the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and other financial indicators:

  1. Percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and eight-year graduation rates (–0.93)
  2. Percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and rate of loan repayment (-0.968)
  3. Percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and reported salary of graduates (-0.898)

In other words, schools with a large number of students hailing from financially-challenged families have more graduates with poor financial outcomes.

To put these correlations in some context, we can look at two measures of what appear to be the same thing in the same realm. Lo, Ho, Mak, and Lam (2011), for example, reported substantial although much lower correlations between self-reported and actual height among Chinese teens – correlations of about .75. We would argue that the four variables in the Third Way data are so highly correlated because they are simply different measures of the same thing, that is, financial stress.

Correlation ≠ causation

Figure 1. The correlation between graduation rates and Pell Grants in PASSHE schools.

We cannot infer a cause-and-effect relationship between two variables solely on the basis of the correlation between them – but these data do suggest that the variability among PASSHE schools in eight-year graduation rates is quite highly related to financial issues and the relative advantage of the student body. A more advantaged student body – at least as measured by the number of students receiving Pell Grants – experiences greater success.

Figure 1 shows the percentage of Pell recipients plotted against eight-year graduation rates and brings this point home quite well. All 13 schools cluster quite tightly around the regression line, with schools with more Pell recipients having poorer outcomes (as assessed by Third Way, 2019).

Clarion University’s success, at least as measured by graduation rates, is on the low end for the PASSHE system, but our students are facing greater economic disadvantages coming into school. These pre-existing economic disadvantages probably explain a large part of the problem Clarion University has in post-graduation outcomes. Given our student body, we do as well as expected, as well as more privileged schools in the System would be expected to do if they had the same sort of student body (see Figure 1).

What can we do?

Some of these disadvantages can likely be mitigated by making college more affordable, but it is likely that there are additional social and environmental factors affecting our students that negatively impact graduation rates, employment, and loan repayments.  Our students frequently face significant financial stressors, often are attempting to financially and emotionally support their parents and siblings, and likely have relatively lower rates of financial literacy. Financial difficulties make it difficult for students to schedule for classes on time, attend class when a car breaks down, and study if they also need to hold down one or more jobs. If we are going to examine the success of our schools in a meaningful manner, we should look at schools with similar populations rather than compare very different schools using the same rubric.

We could improve our numbers by gaming the system – by restricting the number of financially-challenged students we admit. PASSHE’s mission is to make a university education accessible and affordable to the population of Pennsylvania. Choosing to game the system would be advantageous to Clarion, but we believe it would also be wrong-headed and betray our mission and the people of Pennsylvania.

Instead, we believe that if we value creating an equitable society, one where opportunities are available to all, barriers to academic success must be addressed in a serious, ongoing manner. Rather than throw up our hands and give up, we can do things that will increase our students’ success. We can:

  • send text messages to prod students to start and stay in college;
  • use data analytics to identify students at risk;
  • offer experiences that promote resilience, growth mindset, and a sense of belongingness in the university community; and
  • revamp courses that are frequent stumbling blocks for students (Kirp, 2019).

Our students have poorer financial outcomes than we would like – which is understandable given their backgrounds. Nonetheless, there are things we can and should do better.


Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). Federal Pell Grants. Retrieved from

Kirp, D. (2019, July 26). The college dropout scandal. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Lo, W. S., Ho, S. Y., Mak, B. Y., & Lam, T. H. (2011). Validity and test-retest reliability in assessing current body size with figure drawings in Chinese adolescents. International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, 6, e107-13.

This entry was posted in State of the university and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Pell Grants and Our Graduates’ Success

  1. DrOlivas says:

    If the outcome analyses were restricted to Pell grant recipients (and other characteristics of the student segments, perhaps by socio-economic status, race, etc.), then we would be able to better assess Clarion’s (or any other university’s) effectiveness. Also, the majors students choose seem to be stronger predictors of such outcomes, sometimes even better predictors than the institutions the student graduated from (e.g., accountants or management majors from Clarion vs. the same majors from bigger and more expensive universities)!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s