December 11, 2017
As a first-generation student with two immigrant parents who work as nail technicians, Karen Zheng based her college decision on which school offered the most support financially and academically.
"With Boston College, I was put into this program called Options Through Education, which is a seven-week transitional program – it's for 40 low-income, high-achieving students," says Zheng, a 20-year-old Pell-grant student. "Being OTE has its benefits; we're guaranteed four years of housing and most of our tuition is paid for."
Initially, the New York City native wanted to attend Columbia University or Fordham University. But after looking at their financial aid packages, she made a different decision.
At Boston College, she says her financial aid covers roughly 90 percent of the full cost of attendance. Now in her junior year as a business major, Zheng works as an intern at the college's Montserrat Office – a project that supports low-income students on campus.
Education experts say that college programs such as BC's Monserrat help students from low-income backgrounds achieve college success and increase graduation rates.
"There is research that suggests that financial aid is very important to low-income students in graduating from college. And it’s likely that institutional supports play an important role," says Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
In a recent Brookings paper, Kelchen detailed that Pell students have lower graduation rates compared with non-Pell recipients when it comes to the six-year graduation rate for students entering college in fall 2010. Students who are Pell often come from low-income households that typically earn less than $50,000 a year.
The Pell program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduates. According to the Department of Education, more than $28 million dollars is disbursed annually to around 7.2 million students through the Pell grant.
But experts say these students need – in addition to financial aid support – other institutional resources on campus to succeed. These resources can range from a community with similar students, financial safety-net resources and peer mentoring.
BC's Montserrat Coalition identifies and assists students with the high financial need, and the school's Pell recipients are automatically enrolled, says Yvonne McBarnett, manager of the program. "There's plenty of students who come to BC and they have their financial aid packages but are lacking other resources financially – which is one of our priorities," she says.
McBarnett says the program ensures that low-income students have a community as well as access to a textbook lending program, laptops and grocery money. In some cases, it can even mean providing a winter coat for a student in need.
She says providing extra financial resources and mentorship helps these students stay on track academically. "Because of the program, we've had a lot of success with graduation."
In fact, according to U.S. News data on six-year graduation rates for students who entered college in fall 2010, the comparison between Pell and non-Pell students at BC is identical at 92 percent.
The Department of Education has recognized other schools – including John Carroll University in Ohio, Georgia State University and Goucher College in Maryland –for implementing institutional approaches to increase graduation rates among low-income students.
José Antonio Bowen, president of Goucher, says the school has a long history of providing support for Pell students. Of the college's more than 1,400 undergraduate students, a quarter were Pell recipients, according to 2015-2016 data reported to U.S. News.
Bowen stresses that success of Pell students at Goucher isn't solely reliant on financial resources but a mix of financial, social and academic support. "You have to do it all."
He says the school offers several special programs. The Phoenix Scholars Program provides mentoring with peers, professors and administrators, which helps low-income students develop a community and network. And extra financial assistance and resources are available to in-state Pell students through the Maryland Scholars Program.
"Because we get support from the state, it's easier to give them extras like a computer or full financial aid," Bowen says. He adds that the graduation rates among Pell and non-Pell students at Goucher are virtually identical.