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Pell Graduation Rate In Arizona Suffers At For-Profit Schools, Bright Spot At ASU

The federal government spends nearly $30 billion a year on Pell Grants, which provide college tuition assistance to low- and moderate-income students. However most colleges do not graduate the majority of their Pell students.

“We already know there's a completions crisis for students overall,” said Wesley Whistle, an educator policy advisor from Third Way who analyzed the Pell Grant data. “But it gets more acute for these students with the highest needs.”

About 49 percent of first-time, full-time Pell recipients graduate from four-year universities nationwide. In Arizona, that number is just 39 percent.

Whistle says this is mainly due to a large number of Pell students in Arizona attending for-profit colleges, which are known for low graduation rates overall. In fact, three for-profit colleges have single-digit graduation rates.

“And the concern is that taxpayers and students both deserve a return on their investments, but if you don’t graduate you’re more likely to default on your student loan,” he said.

There is a bright spot at Arizona State University, said Whistle, as the university’s Pell graduation rate is 22 points higher than the state average.

ASU implemented an E-advisor program and uses predictive analytics to determine who needs academic counseling the most.

“It’s a good use of data and with 35 percent of their cohort receiving Pell, it's working,” Whistle said.

But the picture is incomplete. This is only the first year the Department of Education has released these Pell graduation rates, and doesn't plan on releasing data on part-time and transfer students until next fall.

Claire Caulfield was a reporter and Morning Edition producer at KJZZ from 2015 to 2019.