June 25, 2024

UT Austin, Dell Foundation to tackle the Pell Grant gap

Author: Madeline St. Amour
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The University of Texas at Austin is partnering with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation to expand the Dell Scholars program to all students at the university who receive Pell Grants.

For participants in the program, the university will cover tuition costs, while the scholarship will provide wraparound supports. Pell recipients with an expected family contribution under $1,000 will get an additional $20,000 for up to six years for basic needs and other education costs.

The Dell Foundation will commit $100 million over a decade to the program.

“We want to provide the opportunity for more students from low-income families to be successful and graduate,” said Gregory Fenves, president of UT Austin.

The university is focusing on Pell recipients because, Fenves said, “despite the work that we have done, there are still gaps in degree attainment and graduation.”

UT Austin has about 8,000 students, or 20 percent of the undergraduate population, who receive Pell Grants, he said. The program will be phased in one class at a time.

The university’s six-year graduation rate is 86 percent for all students, but only 73 percent for Pell recipients. Nationally, the gap is even worse. A 2018 report from Third Way, a left-leaning D.C. think tank, found that Pell recipients graduate at a rate of 18 percentage points lower than non-Pell recipients.

The Dell Scholars program hopes to address this issue by ensuring low-income students get not only funding for tuition and fees but also a bevy of supports to help them through to graduation.

Michelle Dimino, an education policy adviser at Third Way, said this multifaceted approach can greatly help Pell students graduate.

“Data on graduation rates make it clear that many colleges aren’t serving their Pell-eligible students well or equitably, so higher ed’s completion crisis has an outsize impact on low-income students,” Dimino said in an email. “Efforts like this partnership between UT Austin and the Dell Foundation can provide on-the-ground evidence of what works in closing completion gaps, and state and federal policy makers should be paying attention to its results as they think about funding for higher education.”

Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said it’s “promising” to see this scale of investment in low-income students. It also hits many issues that policy experts advocate for, like targeting the aid toward the most needy, providing extra money for nontuition expenses and giving students services beyond funding to address barriers to graduation, she said.

Much of this is needed as the Pell Grant has “lost its purchasing power,” said Voight, so it can’t address all of the needs of low-income students.

“We, as a society, should be investing in low-income students and the opportunities they have to pursue higher education,” she said.

The university’s goal is to raise six-year graduation rates for Pell recipients to 90 percent. Based on UT Austin’s past improvements to its graduation rates, Voight said that goal seems reasonable. It’s important for institutions to set goals that “are both stretching them and are reachable,” she added.

The Dell Foundation operates the Dell Scholars program nationally; students apply to receive the scholarship. It provides students with wraparound supports and $20,000 over their time in college.

The program at UT Austin will build upon the success of that model, as well as its own efforts. The Texas Advance Commitment covers tuition for students from families with up to $65,000 in adjusted gross income, which Fenves said appears to be contributing to a nearly 20-percentage-point increase in the university’s overall graduation rate over the last couple years.

With the Dell Foundation’s funding, students with high levels of need will get the additional scholarship money, and all Pell recipients will receive individualized support from the UT for Me — Powered by Dell Scholars services. These include financial aid coaching and financial literacy training; graduation planning; guided connections to university resources; peer advising; internship and career planning; a laptop computer; and tutoring and textbook support.

The foundation will employ its own staff to work on advising, mentoring and career planning for the program, Fenves said. The university also has been increasing its student support services staffing.

“One of the reasons the Dell Foundation is working with us as a partnership is the commitment we made as a university to increase financial aid for low- and middle-income students,” Fenves said.

Janet Mountain, executive director of the Dell Foundation, said the organization has funded student success initiatives for 16 years. This new partnership, however, provides an opportunity for the foundation to work with a large-scale university and to change the standard way it serves Pell recipients, Mountain said.

“It’s not about incremental progress — it’s about changing the game and changing how students get help,” she said.

The Dell Foundation is also committed to using data to address problems in the program early and often. Once the program establishes relationships with students, it can track the outcomes of different services and see what works, according to Mountain.

While graduation rates are “interesting,” she said, they’re not very actionable.

“Getting underneath that number is what gives us the information to take action,” she said.

Fenves said UT Austin already has begun raising money to continue the Dell Scholars program after the 10 years of funding runs out.

“Our goal should be to give every student who attends UT a chance to graduate,” he said.

However, Voight had one critique about the program: the foundation’s choice of a university partner. UT Austin is relatively well resourced, she said, compared to institutions like community colleges or historically black colleges and universities, which could greatly benefit from such a large investment. Many low-income Texans are enrolled in less resourced institutions, she said, and might not have access to UT Austin and could use the help.

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