In the Chronicle of Higher Education’s excellent series on low-income and working class students in college, the editors included rankings of elite colleges’ enrollments of Pell grant recipients. The Pell grant data that is available from the U.S. Department of Education is for an entire academic year — in other words, all the students who received a grant during any term, including the summer. Yet the denominator chosen by the Chronicle — the enrollment for determining the percentage of Pell recipients — is Fall only. Generally, at highly selective colleges, most students start in the fall and stay, so there’s not a big difference between Fall enrollment and 12-month unduplicated total enrollment. But some campuses have more students who start in other terms. Those potential Pell recipients are included in the numerator (Education Department’s Pell numbers), but not in the Chronicle’s Fall denominator, causing the percentage to be higher than it should be. Given the fine gradation of the Chronicle’s rankings (as small as 1/10 of one percent), this makes a difference in the rankings. In our database, for example, Baylor University jumps up almost two full percentage points when Fall enrollment is used as the denominator instead of the more appropriate 12-month number.
There’s another wrinkle in these types of rankings. Most students attending elite colleges are dependent students, and therefore their parents’ income is included in determining whether they come from a less advantaged background. Once a student turns 24, however, they become independent, and may suddenly qualify for a Pell grant because they have very little income of their own. More independent students qualify for Pell than dependent students. That’s why our database includes an estimate of the proportion of dependent students at income levels below $30,000 and between $30,000 and $60,000. Again, looking at the campuses ranked by the Chronicle, some of the results would be different if they asked which campuses enroll more traditional-age undergraduates with incomes below $60,000. The flagship public institutions in Nebraska, Texas and Illinois all do significantly better under this alternative measure. Among private institutions, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Carleton and Pomona all move up significantly when using the estimates focused on dependent students only.
Thanks to University of Virginia economist Sarah Turner for pointing to these issues in her letter-to-the-editor in the Chronicle.