Rethinking Pell Grants to Better Help Low-Income Students

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By William Murchison

The new fixation of American universities is the question: how many yearbooks exhibit white students in black face (plus, what are we going to do about something that happened a hundred years ago?)  However, in terms of racial matters, the conundrum universities really should focus on is, how do we increase graduation rates for low-income Pell Grant students: the vast majority being black and Hispanic?

According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the U. S. Education Department, an average 8.9 percent gap separates Pell Grant recipient from non-recipients in terms of six-year graduation rates.  At schools like the University of Missouri, the gap is 20 percent, at the University of Dallas, it is 22.8 points.

You’re right to think six years is too long in the first place to finish what’s supposedly designed as a four-year education.  The larger point, even so, is the performance difference between students from low-income families and those from more economically flourishing backgrounds.   The latter come to college better prepared.

Many Pell Grant students — possibly most — are the first from their families to attend college. It seems appropriate to wonder if they’re attending the right colleges.   There seems some good-hearted or guilt-ridden notion out there in society that most students bring equivalent gifts to college.  They don’t, just as they don’t come with the same financial backing.

The challenge isn’t so much to render college user-friendly to all comers as it is to boost family moral support for education: which is the same in a sense as boosting social support for intact marriage and the family as a vital and thriving cultural unit, populated by mutually supportive members.   There isn’t nearly as much of this factor as there was before and after World War II.

The colleges can’t do it all, in other words.   One thing they can do is rid themselves of the dubious notion that higher education exists to push people up the ladder, when its actual historic role involves putting before unformed personalities what they need to understand life.   For which task not all colleges are equally credentialed.   Curricula differ.  Faculties differ.  Student bodies differ.  One size doesn’t come close to fitting all.

A large task facing society is helping students of whatever means, large or meager, to figure out what campus best serves their discrete purposes.  Making higher education a prime means of social uplift, as has been the case for several decades, serves well neither students nor colleges eager to get their hands on more scholarships and Pell Grants.

There’s a lot here to ponder, a lot to grasp.  But that’s what higher education supposedly is all about — pondering, grasping.

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