President's Blog

How well do we serve those who have the least?

With Kirk Heffelmire

A sad reality across higher education is the fact that family wealth not only affects the probability of getting into a good college, but also the probability of graduating on time, finding a good job, and being in a position to pay back student loans.

We looked at the most recent three-year student loan default rates, just released by the federal government, and compared them with the proportion of Pell Grant recipients in public universities in Virginia, according to data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Because Pell Grants are awarded to students with financial need, the percentage of students in an institution that qualify for them is a good (inverse) proxy of the family wealth of students served.

The graph below shows a correlation of 93 percent between Pell Grant recipients and three-year default rates for that institution. One has to be careful to not draw conclusions about the value added by an institution by looking just at the outcomes (for example, employment success or default rates) without considering the inputs (e.g. financial need of students served).

The two institutions with the highest default rates in the Commonwealth — Virginia State and Norfolk State — happen to be the ones that serve the most Pell Grant recipients. On the other extreme, the university with the lowest percentage of Pell Grant recipients, the University of Virginia, delivers one of the lowest default rates in the state.


Pell grants vs. default rates Ver.2

Among public four-year universities in Virginia, George Mason appears to be the biggest outlier. As shown in the chart, Mason had the second-lowest three-year student loan default rate (second only to William and Mary), but it had fifth-highest average percentage of students receiving Pell Grants across the four academic years prior to 2012.

In other words, George Mason graduates are in a better position to pay back their student loans than their socioeconomic background would predict. Or put the other way around, we are managing to provide wider access in terms of student socioeconomic status than universities with similar outcomes.

Mason’s performance with economically challenged students is also noticeable in terms of graduation rates. A recent report from The Education Trust, highlighted in a Washington Post article, shows no gap in graduation rates at Mason between students who receive Pell Grants and those who do not. In fact, the six-year graduation rate for students receiving Pell Grants is four percentage points higher than the rate for other students. This too makes Mason an all too rare exception in American higher education.

Universities are society’s greatest equalizers. They are the surest path to a successful career and life. That’s why, a good measure of whether we do our job is to look at the outcomes of those who had the least to begin with.