Pell and The Gray Lady

The estimable Jim Bacon points to a piece in the Gotham City Times regarding college funding and Pell grants.

Jim points out that, according to the Times, UVa and Tech are 2d and 3d from the bottom of the Times’ top twenty “top public universities” in terms of percentage of Pell grants.  As to some of those universities (Tech not so much; UVa not at all), the Times points to recent decreases in Pell percentages.

In fact, the Times has cherry picked the Pell data without showing any relationship to state-level college funding.  As to recent decreases in Pell numbers, the facts in context suggest otherwise.

For background, here are the 2016 median SAT verbal scores vs. Pell percentages of the Virginia 4-year public programs.


UVa and Tech are nationally ranked because they admit smart kids.  Given that smarts correlate strongly but negatively with Pell percentage throughout the Virginia 4-year programs (we can argue about the reasons, but that’s not the issue here), it’s no surprise that those fine schools have low Pell percentages.

Those low numbers are not a problem unless one thinks that these schools should dilute their brands by admitting less qualified students.

As to the alleged trend in Pell percentages with decreasing state support, the Times looks only at 2016 and 2012, and fails to demonstrate any relationship with state funding. 

A more general view of the Pell numbers is more revealing.  To that end, here are the Pell percentages of the average and three selected Virginia 4-year programs, by year:



The jumps in 2010 and –11 are statewide, and suggest that the selective schools were affected proportionately by the increases in Pell funding (see below).

(I’ve included Mary & Bill here because it belongs in any 4-year ranking that includes THE UNIVERSITY and Tech).

More to the point, it’s hard to see any large decreases there.  Indeed, in light of the Pell funding that has been decreasing in recent years, the surprise is the absence of large recent decreases in Virginia Pell percentages at these schools.


The more interesting question here is why the poorer (and statistically less smart) kids graduate at lower rates, especially from the less selective schools. 


I’ll bet you a #2 lead pencil that it has more to do with the quality of K-12 education, esp. in our cities, and the support – both financial and academic – those students receive than with state appropriations.