More college students receiving federal Pell grants as family incomes decline, RTI researchers find

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC — The percentage of college students receiving Pell grants has climbed steadily since 1999, while their family income has declined, according to a recent report by RTI International researchers.

The trends held true for financially independent students as well as those who were still dependent on their parents, the researchers found.

In the 1999-2000 school year, 19 percent of dependent and 25 percent of independent students received Pell grants. By 2011-2012, the percentage increased to 35 percent of dependent students and 48 percent of independent students.

Inflation-adjusted family income, meanwhile, moved in the opposite direction. For both dependent and independent Pell grant recipients, median family income was lower in 2011-2012 than in 1999-2000.

“These trends suggest that the increase in Pell Grant recipients is related to a changing composition of students needing federal financial aid,” said Nicole Ifill, a research education analyst at RTI and the lead author of the study. “Future research should examine how these changes affect student’s completion.”

Through the Pell grant program, the federal government provides money for college to financially needy students pursuing a college degree or certificate. The amount given varies based on the student’s financial situation, and is subject to a maximum limit set by the federal Department of Education. Unlike loans, Pell grants do not need to be repaid.

The report, released Sept. 20, is based on data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, which RTI conducts every four years on behalf of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Two young women sit with packages on the steps of a building


  • The percentage of college students receiving federal Pell grants has climbed steadily since 1999
  • Median family income of Pell grant recipients has declined over the same time period
  • In 2011-2012, 48 percent of financially independent students and 35 percent of students dependent on their families received Pell grants