What the Pell?!? America’s Worst Colleges and Universities For Enrolling Students from Low-Income Households

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

November 10, 2022

The Department of Education has released new enrollment data for academic year 2020-21. In what has become an annual tradition, Education Reform Now analyzed the enrollment of students who receive Pell Grants to identify which colleges and universities are failing to offer opportunities to a fair share of low- and middle-income families. This year we have expanded our coverage to include three components:

  1. The 20 colleges and universities with the lowest Pell shares in the nation are identified below and the 20 public colleges and universities with the lowest Pell shares. 
  2. An explainer for our Pell analysis.
  3. A searchable table showing the Pell share of every four year college and university that enrolled more than 50 undergraduates in 2020 and reported enrollment numbers.

The 20 Worst Four-Year Colleges and Universities for Enrolling Students with Pell Grants

This year, a new institution tops the list of worst colleges: Connecticut’s Fairfield University. Fairfield is a Catholic university–Jesuit to be more precise–where 13.1% of freshmen were Pell-eligible in 2016, but only 7.5% were in 2020. 

The 20 Worst Four-Year Colleges and Universities for Enrolling Students with Pell Grants

William & Mary returns to a familiar spot atop the list of public universities with the worst Pell shares. Six of Virginia’s universities rank in the bottom twenty public institutions. Those pitiful numbers are explained in part by Virginia being a relatively wealthy state with a high median income and fewer Pell-eligible students. They are explained too by what an Education Reform Now report designated de facto segregation in the Commonwealth, in which students from low-income households and students of color are funneled into one set of universities, while white and wealthier students are funneled into others. 27% of freshmen in Virginia’s four year colleges had Pell Grants in 2020, but three Virginia universities did not even enroll half that share. In contrast, at Old Dominion 42% of freshmen were Pell-eligible, at UVA-Wise 51%, at Norfolk State 67%; and at Virginia State 71%. In other words, there are many students in Virginia who have Pell Grants but most of them do not go to the Commonwealth’s most prestigious institutions.


What Is a Pell Grant?

The federal government’s Pell Grant awards aid to undergraduates with extreme financial need in order to to assist in paying the cost of college. The size of the grant is determined by the extent of an applicant’s need, and the maximum grant is currently $6,895. Pell Grants are not loans, and they are not repaid.

Why Analyze Pell Shares?

Many educational analysts use Pell-eligibility as a proxy for low-income status. We track enrollment of students from low-income households because one of the powers–or, better, purposes–of higher education is to increase upward economic mobility by providing people with the skills and credentials they need to attain a job that will increase their income. Lacking income data on all applicants, researchers use receipt of a Pell Grant as a marker of low socioeconomic status. It’s a pretty good marker. According to the Biden administration, two-thirds of Pell recipients are from households with incomes below $30,000 and 93% are from households with incomes below $60,000. 

We analyze enrollments each year as they become available to calculate the share of students who received a Pell Grant. Last year we looked just at freshmen. Other years we have looked at all undergraduates. This year we include both.

 Looking at freshmen is useful for tracking trends at a speed that matches the pace of the admissions office and a college’s changing priorities. By just looking at first-time, first-year students you can see change more easily, since it takes longer for the share of all undergraduates to change. A college might have set a new priority on enrolling more low-income students, but with so many undergraduates taking more than four years to earn a degree, it will take several years for those priorities to appear in the data.

The reason we highlight the poor performers is to inspire them to do a better job at enrolling students with Pell Grants. In 2019 and early 2020 we published reports that called out the University of Wisconsin-Madison and several colleges and universities in Ohio for their low Pell shares. The following fall, the Pell shares at several of these universities rose. 

Education Reform Now, of course, does not claim sole responsibility for those improvements, but we do know that putting public pressure on institutions to improve helps press the cause and amplify the voices of those working within colleges and universities and those working in state legislatures and other advocacy organizations to increase access to four-year colleges for Pell-eligible students. In 2021, for example, ERN published a pair of reports shining a light on the low Pell numbers in many Virginia’s universities. In 2022, the Virginia General Assembly created a competitive grant program, funded at $25 million in FY 2024, to enhance efforts to recruit and retain students eligible for the Pell Grant. Our work was cited in the creation of that grant.

Demanding more of colleges and universities that pay no taxes and receive many millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded financial aid is a strategy that works. Consider the following table showing the changes in ranking at the 30 worst colleges in the nation in 2015 and the 20 worst in 2020. If you look at the arrows, which point at the college’s 2020 ranking (with 1 being the lowest Pell share in the nation), you see that almost half of the 30 worst colleges in 2015 fell out of the top 30 in 2020. 

Here are the same schools, showing their changes in Pell share, proving that it is possible to improve if an institution’s leadership makes it a priority. More than half the colleges and universities in the table improved their Pell share over the course of five years. While many of the improvers still have a way to go, their progress is noteworthy. 

What Is an Adequate Pell Share?

How do we determine whether a college or university has a way to go on Pell enrollment? What counts as an adequate share? This is a complex question, and any answer will have flaws.

Location is one important consideration in determining what is adequate. The economists Sarah Turner and Caroline Hoxby make a convincing argument that it’s unfair to compare Pell shares across states, since some states have much larger populations of students eligible for Pell Grants than others do. California’s and Florida’s public universities are often held up for the high number and share of students with Pell Grants that they enroll, but it is also the case that a larger number and share of students in those states are eligible for Pell than in, say, Massachusetts or Virginia. Nationally, 34% of freshmen enrolled in 2020 at four-year colleges and universities received a Pell Grant, but in California 39% did and in Florida 40% did, while only 25% did in Massachusetts and 27% did in Virginia. 

There is, too, the question of academic preparedness, which affects who is admitted where. The NAEP assessment exam suggests that the level of preparation for college is not equal across all states. New Jersey, for instance, might have more Pell-eligible students who are academically prepared for college than Wisconsin does, even if it has fewer Pell-eligible students overall. 

In order to provide some local context, the map below shows the percentage of freshmen enrolled in 2020 at four-year colleges and universities who received a Pell Grant in each state. The table on the bottom of this post also provides the state shares.

With these caveats in mind, it is still important to call out Pell shares that fall far below the national share, particularly since many of the institutions with the worst Pell shares are private colleges and universities that draw students from multiple states or even the whole nation. 

Rating Pell Shares

This year, we are rating the Pell share of the 1,658 colleges and universities in our data set, which we developed by identifying the share of all freshmen who had a Pell Grant in 2020 (the latest year for which data are available) at four-year colleges that report enrollment numbers to IPEDS and enroll at least 50 undergraduates. 

We used the national share of students at four-year colleges and universities with Pell Grants–33.6%–as a benchmark for a national and a state rating. We identify “adequate” as having a Pell share that is as least two-thirds of the national and of the state share. Colleges with a Pell share between a half and two-thirds of the national share and of the state were rated as “needs improvement,” those between a quarter and a half were rated “unsatisfactory,” and institutions whose Pell shares were less than a quarter of the national share or the state share were rated as “failing.”  For example, Scripps College Pell share in 2020 was 9.4%, which is between a quarter and a half of the national share, so it was rated “unsatisfactory” at the national level.  At the state level, however, its Pell share was less than a quarter of the share of all California freshmen, so it received a “failing” rating at the state level.

Pell Share RatingFraction of the Share of all Freshmen at 4-Year Institution in the Nation or the Institution’s Home State who Received a Pell Grant
AdequateTwo-thirds or higher of the national or home state share 
Needs ImprovementOne-half to two-thirds of the national or home state share 
UnsatisfactoryOne-quarter to one-half of the national or home state share 
FailingLess than one-quarter of the national or home state share 

The final point to make on adequate Pell shares is that looking at Pell numbers in isolation does not tell us about a college or university’s contribution to economic mobility. As Mike Itzkowitz has shown in his work at Third Way, enrolling lots of Pell-eligible students who do not go onto earn a degree or get jobs that pay them no more than if they had never been to college does no good to those students or to our society. Adequate Pell shares are necessary but not sufficient for a college to be an engine for social mobility.