U.S. Markets close in 1 hr 24 mins

Pell Grants Spending Soars, But Little Data

President Obama has more than doubled funding for Pell Grants and made them a campaign issue this year. But no data exist showing exactly how many Pell Grant recipients ever graduate from college.

What evidence there is suggests less than half do.

Pell Grants are subsidies the federal government gives to college students of primarily low-income families, although middle-class families are also eligible.

Obama has criticized the budget plan of Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, which reduces funding for Pell Grants.

In turn, Romney has backed away some from Ryan's plan, saying he'd let Pell Grants grow at the rate of inflation.

Since taking office, Obama has more than doubled funding for Pell Grants from $16 billion in 2008 to $40 billion this year.

When he increased funding for the program in the 2009 stimulus bill, he claimed it was part of his goal that "by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

Yet no such data show Pell Grants would be an effective way to achieve that goal.

One common metric of performance in higher education is how many students receive a bachelor's degree within six years. No such statistic exists for Pell Grants.

The Education Department released a study in April 2011 that tracked students who received Pell Grants in 2003-04 over a period of six years. Yet the data were categorized in a way that made it impossible to determine how many students received bachelor's degrees.

Students who were still "persisting" in their studies as of the spring of 2009 were lumped in with those who had graduated.

That category was compared with students who had dropped out of college.

Further, students seeking a bachelor's or an associate's degree were put in the same category and compared against students who were studying for a "certificate" program and those who were not seeking degrees.

The students who were studying for a bachelor's or associate's and had graduated or were persisting amounted to 53% of all the Pell Grant recipients.

As Low As 40% That almost surely means that the number of Pell Grant recipients who had graduated with a bachelor's within six years is considerably smaller.

It may be as low as 40%, according to an analysis by Richard Vedder, Jonathan Robe and Chris Denhart of the conservative Center for College Affordability.

Using data from 750 colleges, they found that the graduation rate falls 0.25 percentage point for every 1% of a student body that receives Pell Grants.

From those results, they were able to estimate that only four in 10 students with Pell Grants graduated from a four-year institution in six years.

That number "was a rough estimate," Robe said. "We still lack the hard data on Pell Grants and graduation rates.

If that estimate is correct, Vedder says it would be a scandal in that the government is spending nearly "$40 billion annually on a program with a huge failure rate — 60%."