Graduating our lower income students

We knew it was coming – despite hoping against hope that we might have avoided winter this year. But even as some of us were shoveling out and bundling up, the warm couple of days last week had already turned my thoughts to spring and all that comes with the end of the academic year.  Of course, this inevitably brings up the topic of graduation – a primary measure of our success as an institution.


For many years, colleges have tracked graduation rates – the proportion of students from a given incoming cohort that actually graduate from that college.  Although the national conversation about graduation rates generally references 6-year rates, for most private liberal arts colleges the 4-year graduation rate matters most because 1) the curriculum is explicitly set up to graduate students in four years, and 2) the cost of tuition at private colleges makes finishing in four years particularly preferable to students and their families.  In more recent years, many institutions have figured out that the overall graduation rate isn’t really as important as the graduation rates of student subgroups that are more likely to struggle and/or withdraw from college.


As the cost of higher education has increased, many have worried about the effect of this trend on college access for students from lower socio-economic status backgrounds.  But another question is also important – for the students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who acquire access to higher education, do they graduate at the same rate as students from higher socio-economic backgrounds?


Although the answer is probably a complicated one, we are able to examine graduation rates across federal financial aid categories and find out if there are systematic differences for students entering Augustana College.  Although socio-economic status (SES) is a complex issue, federal financial aid can roughly approximate three categories of students.  The most privileged students would be those who don’t qualify for any federal financial aid.  The students with some need qualify for a subsidized Stafford Loan, but no grant aid.  And the students for whom paying for college is the biggest challenge qualify for a Pell Grant.  Based on these categories, we can test the graduation rates for each group.


The most recent cohort of students to finish four years at Augustana entered in the fall of 2007.  The 4-year graduation rate for these students across these three SES groups is portrayed below.


Students with neither Stafford or Pell


Students receiving a Stafford Loan


Students receiving a Pell Grant



Clearly, something is going on for the students who received a Pell Grant that differs from those who did not.  But what?  Maybe they initially thought they could cobble together the money to come to Augustana, but then found out they just couldn’t make it work.  Maybe they decided they weren’t getting enough out of the Augustana experience to merit the costs – especially in the context of their financial situation and economic collapse in 2008.  Or maybe the issue wasn’t so much about money as it was about a sense of belonging on campus among the much larger proportion of students who don’t come from such economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  Or maybe it was a combination of factors.


I don’t begin to know the answers to these questions.  But I think this data suggests that we had better find out.


Make it a good day,



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