Do Pell Grants increase dual enrollment for low-income students?

UNITED STATES - JUNE 03: Benjamin Leese, 17, a recent graduate from South County High School in Lorton, VA, tosses his cap at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Sipa USA)No Use UK. No Use Germany.
Editor's note:

This post was produced in collaboration with the academic journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

In the fall of 2016, the office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) launched a set of pilot programs to assess potential expansions of federal financial aid. One of these programs allowed participating colleges to award Pell Grants to eligible high school students concurrently pursuing college coursework. This program, set to end in summer 2022, was established to increase access to dual enrollment and subsequent college attendance for students of low-income families.

In a recent article published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (EEPA), we show that this program not only failed to increase low-income students’ access to dual enrollment but may have actually decreased access. Despite the good intentions behind the program, it created new barriers to dual enrollment for colleges and families. These unintended consequences offer important lessons for policymaking.  

Why dual enrollment?

Dual enrollment, or taking college courses while in high school, is a popular strategy for getting a jumpstart on college coursework. Among students in the 2012 high school graduating cohort, 34 percent participated in dual enrollment. This is often a prudent choice. Dual enrollment is associated with many positive outcomes for students, including increased likelihood of enrolling in college, increased college GPAs, decreased time to degree, and increased degree completion. However, the typical dual enrollment student has parents who went to college and is not low-income. This means access to dual enrollment—and the benefits that accompany it—is stratified.  

This stratification stems in part from stark state and local differences in how dual enrollment is funded. For example, in Georgia, dual enrollment is entirely financed by the state; in Iowa, by the student’s school district; in Maryland, by a combination of the student’s school district and the student or parent; and in Nevada, by the student or parent. Even in places where tuition is covered, other fees, such as registration and books, may not be. And students still have to apply to participate, fulfill the same (or stricter) academic requirements, and maintain satisfactory academic progress.  

The intervention: Using Pell for dual enrollment (with strings attached)

The Pell initiative was simple: eligible students could use Pell Grants to pay for dual enrollment at participating colleges. However, there were strings attached. First, Pell Grants awarded to high school students counted toward students’ six years of Pell eligibility. By using Pell for dual enrollment, students started their “Pell clocks” and had fewer years of Pell available when they eventually enrolled in college as undergraduates. Second, institutions could determine which of their dual enrollment offerings were available to Pell grantees (e.g., at the college campus, in the high school, or online) and could add eligibility requirements (e.g., limiting participation to students from particular localities they serve). There were strings attached for institutions, too. For example, if a student was eligible for any amount of Pell, the institution could not charge them for any tuition. 

Did the program increase low-income students’ dual enrollment participation and postsecondary attendance?

Our study assesses the effects of this initiative using data from four states. We use a difference-in-differences approach. Basically, we begin by comparing outcomes, before and after the program launched, for low-income high school students living within 20 miles of a participating college (affected areas). Next, we measure changes over the same period for students living within 20 miles of colleges in these same states that had dual enrollment but did not participate in this Pell program (unaffected areas). We take the difference between the changes in the affected and unaffected areas as our estimate of the program’s effects. We do this to remove potential biases. 

As shown in Figure 1, we find small, negative effects on low-income students’ dual enrollment participation. As we restricted the sample to students more and more likely to be eligible for Pell Grants (using family income, household income in the zip code, and mother’s level of education), we found evidence of even stronger negative effects.

bar chart depicting enrollment decreases based on students whose mother did not attend college and low-income background
Figure 1. Click to view the image full-size in a new tab.

Our results suggest the Pell program not only failed to increase dual enrollment participation but introduced new barriers, yielding lower participation. Prior to the Pell program, many states already subsidized or waived dual enrollment tuition. This limited demand for Pell awards. Further, the program introduced laborious financial aid processes and institutional constraints that may have made dual enrollment even less appealing to low-income students (and the administrators guiding them through the application process).  

Because the program did not show a significant overall impact on dual enrollment, we may expect that it did not impact subsequent college attendance either. Indeed, in the aggregate, this is what we find. Upon disaggregating effects by institution type, however, we find the program may have spurred two-year college enrollment at the expense of four-year enrollment (Figure 2).  

bar chart representing student dual enrollment program change factored by low-income and students' mother not attending college
Figure 2. Click to view the image full-size in a new tab.

What features of implementation impeded success?

So, what happened? Why might this program not only fall short of its intended outcomes but apparently have negative effects?  

After conducting site visits and interviews with dual enrollment practitioners and high school partners at four participating colleges, we identified three potential explanations: 

 Failing to Meet Student Needs: Participating in dual enrollment requires more than just tuition, particularly in places where tuition is already covered. Transportation, for example, remained a primary barrier for many low-income students. Additionally, students needed supportive learning environments to maintain academic eligibility for dual enrollment. This involved strong relationships between high school partners and college personnel. However, the Pell program introduced challenges to these fragile (and often new) relationships. The program’s complexities invited miscommunication about long-term impacts on students’ Pell eligibility, and its summer launch timing left college staff scrambling to coordinate with high school counselors. These processes did not just serve as momentary inconveniences; they also impacted counselors’ trust in the college.   

Pell Clock Anxiety: High school counselors frequently expressed concern about students drawing on their limited lifetime Pell eligibility for dual enrollment. This kept counselors from actively recruiting students into the program. These misgivings were most prevalent at colleges without established histories of student success with dual enrollment partners.  

Administrative Burdens: Participating institutions introduced new administrative burdens to implement the program, including navigating issues with FAFSA completion and verification, coordinating outreach and recruitment, and monitoring student progress.  

Though every college we visited had different challenges, these were the most prevalent. These challenges meant program coordinators were often overworked and high school counselors were cautious about encouraging students to participate.  

We see implications for policy from these findings. First, places with the greatest need tend to be those with the least room to scaffold policy implementation. These institutions and the students they serve may not be able to benefit from even the most well-intentioned policies. Moreover, federal policy is often designed to address broad problems, like low-income students’ dual enrollment access. Policy solutions are similarly broad, often without attention to local needs. Because dual enrollment has largely been a state and local endeavor, it may be worth exploring how to replicate, support, and scale effective programs at these levels.  

You can read the full journal article in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis: “Unmet Need: Evaluating Pell as a Lever for Equitable Dual Enrollment Participation and Outcomes.”