For most of its 50-year history, the Pell Grant has not covered summer classes, with two brief exceptions: 2009-2011 and 2017 to the present. Summer Pell, officially called year-round Pell, stands on uncertain ground, subject to the shifting priorities of Congress, which ended it originally due to its cost and a lack of evidence of its efficacy. Now, a new study from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University has shown that summer Pell has had meaningful benefits, improving retention, attainment, and even earnings up to nine years after college entry for students who received it.
The study, led by Vivian Yuen Ting Liu, associate director of the office of research, evaluation, and program support at the City University of New York (CUNY) examined administrative data on tens of thousands of CUNY students from both eras of summer Pell, comparing their outcomes to those of students who were ineligible for the extra funds. Liu found clear advantages for the students who got summer money.
Students with summer Pell in the 2009-2011 period were 29% more likely to enroll in classes the following fall, 13% more likely to have earned an associate degree within three years, and 7% more likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree within six, compared with students who did not have access to the grants.
“What we are finding here is pretty large,” said Liu, equivalent to hundreds of additional students staying in school and earning degrees. Increases for students with summer Pell between 2017 and now were even higher, which Liu attributed to the absence of the Great Recession, less confusion about the program, and the fact that the program has lasted longer.
The benefits of summer Pell didn’t stop at the acquisition of a credential—summer funding also affected the earnings of students who were able to take advantage. Students with summer Pell consistently made 6% more per year than students without, equivalent to over $1300 extra, nine years after entering college.
Liu was surprised about how long the influence of summer Pell seems to have lasted.
“A lot of policies, you expect to have an effect within that semester and then maybe in one year, but very rarely do you find consistent positive impact down the road,” she said.
Liu believes that the long-term benefits come because summer Pell incentivizes students to study full-time in order to qualify. (Part-time students can use leftover traditional Pell Grant money to take summer classes, so they don’t qualify for summer Pell.) She compared it to an e-commerce website offering free shipping to those who spend a certain amount of money. Students who enroll full-time are more likely to graduate and can join the workforce more quickly.
The findings are consistent with research showing that continuous enrollment improves persistence and completion. Students studying in the summer may be more likely to remain engaged with their education and can progress to a degree more quickly. They may also avoid summer learning loss. Additionally, summer students tend to take fewer courses but on a more rigorous schedule, which may help both learning and morale.
Summer Pell seems to offer particular help to disadvantaged groups. Liu found that the benefits were largely driven by African American students, who experience particularly strong barriers to completion. Availability of summer Pell increased Black summer enrollment by over three percentage points and led to a 1.3-point increase in their likelihood of finishing a bachelor’s degree within six years. African American students also had increased earnings in their sixth and ninth years from college entry.
According to Dr. Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, this result is to be expected.
“If more students are from single-parent families and parents with lower intergenerational wealth transfer, which African Americans sadly have, that means that parents might be less likely to have that last $300 to lend [their child] so he doesn’t have to drop out. Summer Pell is providing a lot of that,” he said.
Another group that benefited especially was non-traditional students older than 25. These learners had higher rates of summer enrollment, a greater likelihood of earning an associate degree within three years, and larger earnings gains. They did not experience gains in bachelor’s degree attainment within six years, however, which might reflect a preference for shorter degrees.
Katsinas noted that these older students are more likely to have small children, and that summer Pell may have helped them defray the associated costs.
“Summer Pell is providing a consistent revenue stream that they can leverage for housing, food, and even childcare,” he said.
Katsinas is concerned, however, that Congress might deprioritize summer Pell in order to spend money on Pell Grants for short-term programs.
“In light of these findings, it would be tragic if Congress chose to fund short-term Pell by defunding summer Pell,” he said. “This is an important study, rigorously conducted, on a vitally important topic. It showed that summer Pell moves students through the system faster, which is what we want.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.