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Evaluation of the Pell Grant Experiments Under the Experimental Sites Initiative

Contract Information

Current Status:

This study has been completed.

Duration:

September 2012 – December 2020

Cost:

$2,941,098

Contract Number:

ED-IES-12-C-0097

Contractor(s):

Social Policy Research Associates
Mathematica Policy Research

Contact:

Reports

Federal Pell grants are considered the foundation of higher education financial aid for low-income students. However, under current rules, otherwise income-eligible students who already have a bachelor's degree (BA) or who want to enroll in short-term (less than 15 weeks and 600 hours) programs are restricted from obtaining these grants. Given unemployment rates above 8.5 percent in 2011, and reports of unfilled openings for skilled jobs in some occupations, postsecondary institutions called for expanding Pell grants to help fill the skill training gap for low-income workers. In response, the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), under the Experimental Sites Initiative authorized by section 487A(b) of the Higher Education Act of 1965, conducted demonstrations to test the impacts of eliminating the BA restriction (Experiment 1) and significantly lowering the minimum clock hours/duration restriction (Experiment 2) for students interested in occupational training in high-demand fields. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) designed and is overseeing a rigorous evaluation of these experiments.

  • Does expanding Pell grant eligibility to include income-eligible students with a bachelor's degree (Experiment 1) and/or to cover shorter-term programs (Experiment 2) increase enrollment in and completion of postsecondary programs? Did offering experimental Pell Grants affect the types of programs that students enrolled in or completed?
  • Does expanding Pell grant eligibility to these groups affect federal financial aid receipt? Does offering experimental Pell Grants affect students' use of federal student loans? What percentage of students who were offered experimental Pell Grants used them?

Between the 2012 and 2017 award years, 46 postsecondary institutions volunteered to participate and identified nearly 3,000 students eligible for the experiments. Students were randomly assigned to be offered or not offered experimental Pell Grant funds in their financial aid package. Student administrative data on program enrollment and completion were collected from participating postsecondary institutions between 2016 and 2018. Data collection also included student administrative records on financial aid receipt from the Office of Federal Student. These data will be analyzed to address the research questions.

  • Offering Pell Grants for short occupational programs to low-income students with a bachelor's degree (Experiment 1) increased program enrollment and completion by about 20 percentage points. Students were 26 percentage points more likely to enroll in additional education and 17 percentage points more likely to complete a program at the study schools if they were offered an experimental Pell Grant. The offer also affected completion of high-demand programs—defined as those associated with occupations in a new and emerging field, projected to grow rapidly, or having a large number of openings in the student's state. Completion of these programs increased by 11 percentage points.
  • Offering Pell Grants for very short-term occupational training programs (Experiment 2) increased program enrollment and completion by about 10 percentage points. Students were 15 percentage points more likely to enroll in additional education and 9 percentage points more likely to complete a program at the study schools if they were offered an experimental Pell Grant for very short-term occupational programs. The offer increased completion of programs associated with high-demand occupations in a student's state by 8 percentage points.

Questions about the labor market returns from the two experiments and how these compare to the cost of expanding Pell Grant eligibility—about $1,800 per student in this study—remain unanswered, as employment and wage data could not be accessed during the study period. These important questions could be explored in the future.