Top colleges working to close graduation gap for low-income students

Recognizing the consequences of enrolling more low-income students without the financial and cultural resources to ensure their success, a number of institutions are working to close graduation gaps, writes The Wall Street Journal.

Through the American Talent Initiative, of which Georgetown University is a founding member, more than 100 top colleges and universities have pledged to enroll and graduate 50,000 more low- and middle-income students by the 2025-26 academic year.

Related: American Talent Initiative reports 3.5 percent gain in enrollment of low-income college students

At the same time, institutions nationwide—including some elite colleges—are grappling with a significant disparity in the average six-year graduation rates achieved by students who receive Pell Grants and those who don’t. According to Education Department data from students who entered public and private nonprofit colleges and universities in 2011, colleges recorded an 8.9 percentage point gap, on average, in graduation rates between Pell Grant recipients and students who did not receive the grants. Even at schools that graduated at least two-thirds of students within six years, the achievement gap was 6.4 percent.

Addressing financial and cultural hurdles to completion

“Access without success is a pretty hollow promise,” said Jim Spain, vice provost of undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri, which graduates 53 percent of Pell Grant recipients within six years, compared with 73 percent of non-recipients. Hoping to shrink that disparity, the University of Missouri is fully covering tuition for in-state students who receive Pell Grants.

A number of colleges and universities are similarly focused on alleviating financial obstacles that prevent low-income students from thriving, the Journal reports. After noticing that students struggling with bills were dropping out in their final few semesters, Spelman College decided to recalibrate its financial aid and scholarships. Two-thirds of Pell recipients graduate from Spelman in six years, compared with 82 percent of non-recipients. Xavier University and Denison University, meanwhile, provide financial aid for lab fees and textbooks, and funding for sorority dues and emergency car repairs.

Small fees can pose significant hurdles for low-income students, the Journal notes, pointing out the added cultural stress at colleges where many students come from higher-income families. “I wanted to transfer my first semester,” said Nicole Flores, a first-generation Latinx student at Clemson University who relies on Pell grants and scholarships. Flores detailed her inability to attend expensive social events, and struggle to pay student organization dues.

Clemson Provost Bob Jones told the Journal that the university seeks to achieve an 86 percent overall six-year graduation rate and to do so, is focused on increasing success among Pell Grant recipients, whose graduation rate is 13 percentage points lower than students not receiving the grants. “Just getting to the institutional goal has to include closing the gap,” Jones said.

Implications for overall graduation rates, college rankings

Colleges and universities are increasingly recognizing this risk to overall graduation rates if they enroll more Pell Grant recipients without sufficiently supporting them. Schools typically are not penalized for poor outcomes among Pell Grant recipients, the Journal says, but the landscape may be shifting as college rankings increasingly incorporate social mobility criteria.


Georgetown is committed to ensuring that all students have the resources and support they need to succeed. The Georgetown Scholars Program provides programmatic support to more than 650 undergraduates, and the 50-year-old Community Scholars Program prepares its multicultural cohort of first-generation college students for success with a five-week academic summer program and ongoing support. The Regents Science Scholars Program further expands opportunities for students from traditionally underserved communities pursuing studies in the sciences.

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