Jennifer Prewitt always knew she wanted to go to college, but didn’t know how she would afford it with the rising cost of higher education.
Money was scarce since Prewitt was 6 years old, from the day her mother, Cheryl Prewitt, left her abusive husband. Since then, Jennifer Prewitt watched her mother work at McDonald’s, own a restaurant, file for bankruptcy and package meat at a local Kroger.
Though she dreamed of attending college, Cheryl Prewitt never continued her education, but wanted her daughter to have every opportunity to do so.
“My mom was always pushing me so that I could have this great future — or at least go to school,” Prewitt said. But faced with the steep price tag of college tuition, her plan to earn a bachelor’s degree seemed just out of reach.
A $5,000 Pell grant changed that.
Need-based federal aid for low-income undergraduate students, Pell grants make higher education possible for those who might otherwise not be able to afford the cost.
“[The Pell grant] has basically given me the opportunity to pursue my passion,” said Prewitt, a third-year in natural resource management who dreams of becoming a park ranger out West. “Without it, I definitely would not be [at Ohio State] and probably not in school at all.”
Nearly one-quarter of Ohio State’s undergraduate student population depends on Pell grants to cut the cost of their education. That’s roughly 12,500 students across the university’s six campuses, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
But the number of undergraduate students receiving Pell grants at Ohio State has steadily declined since 2010, The Lantern’s analysis of this data found.
About 2,500 fewer Pell-eligible students were enrolled on Ohio State campuses in 2015, the most recent year data was available, than just six years earlier.
The same downward trend has occurred at nearly all Big Ten universities.
Though Ohio State enrolls a larger percentage of Pell recipients than most other Big Ten schools, it also saw the biggest decrease in the share of Pell grant recipients between 2010 and 2015, with a faster rate of decline than all but two other Big Ten universities.
“Five years ago, Ohio State probably would have been considered one of the leading public, highly selective universities in terms of its commitment to serving low-income students, based on its financial Pell undergraduates,” said Jamey Rorison, the director of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “That’s really not the case anymore.”
The decline in the share of students receiving Pell grants is the result of a variety of factors. Many colleges, Rorison said, cite gaps in the academic performance of low- and high-income students as well as cuts in state funding for higher education.
Rorison said shrinking numbers of Pell grant recipients not only reduce the economic diversity of public institutions like Ohio State, but they also contribute to the widening of a societal gap between the rich and poor.
Ohio State is outspoken about its efforts to increase “access, affordability and excellence.” It participates in national initiatives to improve opportunities for low-income students to pursue higher education including the American Talent Initiative, which aims to expand access to higher education for low-income students, and the University Innovation Alliance, which aims to increase graduation rates at public institutions, particularly those of low-income students.
Additionally, Ohio State is planning to implement a program in Autumn 2018 to cover the full cost of tuition for all students eligible to receive Pell grants across its campuses.
“We have been investing significantly in ensuring that our needy students understand that affordability is a primary goal at this institution,” said Diane Corbett, the executive director of student financial aid at Ohio State. “We know that it’s not a perfect situation for us yet, but we do know that we’re on a journey, and we’re well on our way to providing opportunities for high-achieving students regardless of their economic status.”
The Pell Grant Situation
The share of Pell grant recipients is a key indicator for the economic diversity of a university, said Martin Van Der Werf, the associate director for editorial and postsecondary policy from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Pell grant recipients tend to be first-generation college students from rural areas where economic prospects are not as strong compared with urban or suburban areas, he said. Nearly 75 percent of Pell grant recipients report an annual family income of less than $30,000 each year, according to research from the center.
“For them, going to college and getting a degree is more meaningful to their long-term prospects of earning middle-class wages,” Van Der Werf said. “So it’s really important that these students get the chance and the opportunity to attend college.”
The amount of aid given to each student in the form of a Pell grant is based on income information reported in the FAFSA. In the 2015-16 academic year, students could receive a maximum Pell grant of $5,775.
The national average for Pell grant recipients that year was $3,724. At Ohio State, the average award per recipient was $4,203.
Most students who receive Pell grants attend public institutions, but many increasingly selective state schools are enrolling fewer low-income students, as data from the Department of Education illustrates.
Nationally, 40 percent of undergraduates are Pell-eligible. At nearly half of Big Ten schools, less than 20 percent of undergraduates receive Pell grants.
Those schools include Northwestern University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Indiana University, Purdue University and the University of Iowa.
After Penn State and Rutgers, Ohio State enrolls one of the highest shares of Pell grant recipients in the Big Ten.
Those three schools also are the only universities in the Big Ten with regional campuses. A larger percentage of students at Ohio State’s branch campuses received Pell grants than on the Columbus campus.
At most Big Ten schools, Pell shares are shrinking.
At Ohio State, for example, the percentage of undergraduate students receiving Pell grants decreased from about 30 percent in 2010 to roughly 24 percent in 2015, data shows.
Data from Ohio State suggests the drop was slightly smaller, from about 27 percent of the undergraduate student body in 2010 to about 23 percent in 2015. Even so, that’s a bigger drop than at nine of the 14 universities in the Big Ten.
Unlike the data from the Department of Education, Ohio State’s numbers encompass the number of Pell grants awarded in each complete academic year, rather than pointing to data at a single point in time.
Ohio State’s records also show the decline continued into 2016 and 2017. In the 2017-18 school year, it shows the Columbus campus had its lowest enrollment of Pell recipients since at least 2010, at 19.8 percent of undergraduates.
At the same time, the enrollment of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher tuition rates than students from Ohio, has steadily increased for the past several years.
Since 2011, about 6,000 more out-of-state students were enrolled at Ohio State campuses in 2016, as were nearly 1,000 more foreign students, according to the Office of Enrollment Services.
News like this is “disappointing” to students like Dy’Sha Cole.
The mother of 4-year-old Daylin, Cole works two jobs and an internship at the Columbus Department of Health while attending Ohio State as a full-time student.
Cole, a fourth-year in social work, receives roughly $5,500 from the Pell grant.
Like Prewitt, she said the grant makes attending college significantly more affordable. Still, daily living expenses and costs of school supplies make for an expensive college experience, she said.
“Affordable education isn’t a thing anymore,” Cole said. “And that just makes the gap [between the rich and the poor] keep getting wider. Generationally, people of color are more on the low-income side, so then I’ll start to see less and less people that look like me. And it just — it can make you feel really unwanted.”
Why the Decline?
The shrinking number of low-income students at selective state schools like Ohio State can be attributed to a number of different factors.
For one, Van Der Werf said it’s important to note the relationship between the economy and the number of people enrolled in college.
He said there is an inverse relationship between college enrollment and the state of the economy. When the economy tumbles, enrollment increases with a disproportionate impact on low-income students.
“Typically, what we’ll see is that people from higher-income groups are more likely to go to college anyway, and so they’re not as impacted by the economy,” he said. “But people coming from lower-income groups are more likely to consider college as more of an option [during times of economic hardship].”
Now that jobs are more readily available, part of the decrease in the share of students receiving Pell grants could likely be attributed to more people from low-income brackets directly entering the workforce, he said.
However, universities often list a number of additional reasons for enrolling progressively fewer low-income students, said Rorison, the director of policy research from the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Among those reasons are gaps between low- and high-income students’ academic preparation for college, state cuts in funding for higher education and higher enrollment of out-of-state students.
Ohio State is attempting to juggle all of those factors.
At a time when the university continues to see increases in the average ACT scores and GPA of its incoming classes year after year, Corbett, the executive director of student financial aid, said Ohio State is trying to balance its goal of “excellence” with “accessibility.”
In the past, she said Ohio State dedicated immense resources to improving the academic quality of incoming students.
“We still want to continue that academic quality,” she said, “but [moving forward] we also want to make sure that we’re providing those opportunities to all students regardless of their economic circumstances.”
There are plenty of low-income students with high test scores who still don’t attend selective institutions, Van Der Werf said. Part of the problem, he said, is that universities aren’t effectively recruiting them.
“These tend to be students who just don’t have a lot of exposure to post-secondary institutions, and therefore, they may not fit into the funnel that a lot of colleges are used to in recruiting students,” he said. “So the effort to go out and reach these students might just be a little bit more complicated and would require more flexibility than what many higher education institutions are doing now.”
Although reaching high-achieving students from low-income areas might require a few extra steps, Rorison believes it’s important for universities to make the effort.
Low-income students are more likely to attend colleges with lower graduation rates, he said, even if they are academically capable of attending a more selective institution. That, in turn, could affect their chances of success later in life.
“Students, regardless of income, are most likely to succeed when they’re attending colleges for which they are well matched,” Rorison said. “We believe it is the duty — it is the obligation — of our institutions to educate and provide a quality post-secondary education and also work with students where they are to help them be successful.”
Addressing the Gap
Ohio State is taking steps to address the issues of accessibility and affordability.
“One of the things that we’re most focused on is, in fact, increasing the number of Pell-eligible students and lower-half-of-the-income-distribution students,” University President Michael Drake said in an interview with The Lantern in February. “And so, our goal really is to really halt that slide [in the number of enrolled Pell recipients], to reverse it, and to grow.”
Organizations like the ATI and the UIA have several goals for universities across the country to enroll greater numbers of low-income students in hopes of making a college education, and ultimately higher paying jobs, more available to people from all demographics.
A founding member of ATI, Ohio State has specifically set goals to increase enrollment and retention rates of low-income students, to increase need-based aid by $100 million over five years and to increase graduation rates of low-income students.
One step Ohio State is taking to reach those goals, Corbett said, is the recent pledge to cover the remaining cost of tuition for all in-state students eligible for Pell grants.
“Whether they’re in eighth grade or ninth grade or 12th grade, we are saying [to those Pell-eligible students] that we have made this commitment,” Corbett said. ‘“We want you to work really hard while you’re in school and do well. Because if you do well academically, we want you to know that we’ll be behind you in terms of helping you with your tuition and fees.”
Rorison said a step like this could be meaningful to hundreds of low-income students searching for ways to afford higher education.
“Having need-based grant aid like Pell absolutely helps remove barriers for students to access and complete college,” he said. “But getting in is one thing and staying enrolled is another in terms of where their money will come from.”
Tuition cost along with daily living expenses often discourages low-income students from even applying to more selective schools, Rorison said, so closing the gap of tuition not covered by Pell grants could be a determining factor for students deciding whether to submit an application.
Officials at Ohio State are hoping the new initiative will encourage hesitant applicants to press send.
So far, it’s working.
Preliminary results show more students eligible for Pell grants were admitted to Ohio State for the upcoming 2018 school year, although it is yet to be seen whether these students will choose to attend.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” said Chris Davey, an Ohio State spokesman.
College Degrees and Economic Success
In a nation where college degrees are becoming increasingly necessary to find quality jobs, a program like Ohio State’s pledge to cover tuition for Pell students could help bridge the divide between those who can afford higher education and those who cannot.
“I personally don’t think that anyone should be excluded from attending college because they don’t have the ability to pay,” Corbett said. “But I also think that [enrolling more low-income students] is going to become more and more important in our country. We know that there are students out there who are in underrepresented groups, and how are we reaching them? I think as a nation, we really need to look at that.”
That’s because a college degree is more than a sheet of paper, Van Der Werf said. It’s a key to economic success.
“We’re becoming more and more a country that’s defined by college haves and college have-nots,” he said. “College have-nots tend to cluster in unskilled labor. Unskilled labor pays a lot less – multiples less – than careers for people who go to college. So that alone is the biggest factor in the exacerbation of wealth inequality in this country.”
Perhaps Ohio State’s new initiative will reverse the trend of its slowly falling share of low-income students, making college more accessible to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Until then, students like Jennifer Prewitt and Dy’Sha Cole count themselves lucky to be attending college.
“There are a lot of barriers in terms of access to education and access to supplemental funds,” Cole said, “and there are so many people who probably would go to school if they could afford it.”