Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, December 18, 2012

New study demonstrates value of early commitment Pell program

An earlier and simpler Pell Grant application has the potential to increase college enrollment by youth from poor families by helping to reduce their uncertainty about whether college is affordable, a study by La Follette School faculty affiliate Sara Goldrick-Rab and doctoral student Robert Kelchen finds.

Despite decades of public and private investment in financial aid, 30 percent of children born to families in the lowest 20 percent of the income distribution can expect to enroll in college, compared to 80 percent from the top 20 percent. Part of the reason for the college enrollment gap is financial — students who perceive the cost of college as being unaffordable never think about attending college.

"Right now, students do not learn about their financial aid package until 12th grade, but most students who qualify for a full Pell Grant already demonstrate their qualifications in eighth grade," says Kelchen, an educational policy studies student.

Using national, longitudinal data, Kelchen and Goldrick-Rab examine the effectiveness of a commitment to provide the neediest students with full Pell Grants when they are in eighth grade. They find that such a program is likely to increase college enrollment among students from low-income families and that the benefits to the federal government through increased tax revenue are likely to exceed the additional Pell Grant expenditures by about $600 million per year.

"If the children in low-income families know in eighth grade they will have financial resources through Pell Grants, they can plan and prepare for college," Goldrick-Rab says. "Our analysis suggests such a commitment by the federal government is cost-effective."

The study, Accelerating College Knowledge: Examining the Feasibility of a Targeted Early Commitment Pell Grant Program, is available as La Follette School Working Paper No. 2012-014.

A Guaranteed Pell Grant?, December 18, 2012, Inside Higher Ed