Looking Closer at Oklahoma and National Pell Grant Data

For the past five weeks, I’ve been leading a faculty reading group with Mark Morvant on Paying the Price by Sara Goldrick-Rab. This has been a great experience given the fact that I didn’t feel I would have time to be involved in Bryan Alexander’s online group like I was for We Make the Road By Walking.

I had three main goals for being involved with the reading group:

1. I’ve been wanting to read the book myself.

Sara Goldrick-Rab’s keynote at the OpenEd Conference in Richmond, VA was a refreshing surprise for me. I wasn’t aware of any of her work prior to hearing her, but she is such a captivating speaker. I like to think of OpenEd as a group of education technologists and librarians who are interested in student equity and social justice. For this particular group, Sara’s talk felt like going to church in the sense that you have an overwhelming feeling of personal guilt as she unpacks both the statistics and the stories and how much higher education is failing our low income student population. As I said in November:

Sara was frankly a gut punch. I left her talk feeling helpless. And then I started to look around only to realize that the very voices that I would hope we could see amplified through open education simply aren’t represented in our conversations.

This group gave me an excuse to dig deeper into Sara’s work.

2. I wanted to be involved in collectively building empathy towards the student experience.

The majority of those who have been an instructor have been involved with a student story of misfortune. For me, these tend to be very individualized experiences which is probably because I want to respect the privacy of our students or because, from the student’s perspective, their issues are stigmatized. The point is that there isn’t a lot of opportunities for faculty to come together and discuss some of the experiences they’ve witnessed through their students or even talk about their own personal struggles as a student.

I began the reading group by introducing myself and my own student story. I entered college from a single income family. I worked part-time the entirety of my undergraduate career. Most of the time I was working two jobs although one semester I worked three (and paid for it heavily–it was my worst semester grades-wise and I had to drop one of my classes mid semester). The cost of living in the residence halls forced me to look elsewhere in Norman after my first semester. We managed to pay for the first year with no loans due to some local one-year scholarships I had earned. But those ran out and I had to make the decision to take out both federal loans and parent plus loans the next three years. Of course, I say all of this knowing I was in a much better position than other students. My parents still assisted with rent and my cell phone while I covered the rest of my living expenses. While I feel this is a very normal story, it was something I had yet to share in my professional life.

3. I wanted to use this as an opportunity for faculty and administration to have a collective conversation.

The truth is that OU really doing some excellent work and my guess is that faculty haven’t been painted a full picture of the resources that students have access to. For instance, through one of these conversations, I learned that there is something called a Work Assistance Tuition Waiver Program at OU. Students qualify for the scholarship if they are working 25+ hours a week. Even if there hours get cut to 10 hours a week, they can maintain their scholarship by completing 15 hours of school credit (summer courses and be banked towards this) and keep a 2.0 GPA.

For the reading group, we’ve had visitors for Financial Aid, the Provost’s Office, and Administration and Finance come talk about various efforts taking place on campus. As someone who strattles the line between the faculty and the administration, this reading group was a great opportunity to continue to build that bridge.

Looking at the Data

The last goal has been my favorite part of it. I came to know through the reading group how little I knew about the different groups of students we had on campus. Before, I couldn’t even tell you what a Pell Grant was or its monetary value. Now I feel much more equipped to speak towards the issues at hand and better support our students. It’s also been great to understand what efforts are happening for student success. I was given these figures on Pell Grant recipient retention:

Student Cohort Head Count ACT/SAT After One Year
2011 968 24.8 76.40%
2012 1004 24.7 75.80%
2013 779 25.5 79.10%
2014 757 25.6 79.90%
2015 727 25.8 87.30%

You’ll notice the big jump from 2014 and 2015. What will be really interesting to follow is to see if that jump maintains towards graduation.

Getting this data though led me on search for some bigger data set. I was curious to look at Pell Grant data a little bit more in the state of Oklahoma and beyond and landed on a 2015 Report called The Pell Partnership: Ensuring a Shared Responsibility for Low-Income Student Success. I created this interactive graph that helps you visualize some of the data specific to Oklahoma.

You can download the data set for this visualization or get the full data set rom the report to make sense of it however you wish.

Once I started playing with that data, I got even more curious about where Oklahoma is lands in the grand scheme of $31.5 billion spent on Pell Grants by the federal government. I came up with a visualization, colored for public vs private, that looks like this (sorry if your on a smartphone, it’s not very mobile friendly and you’re going to have to scroll a lot):

Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 3.13.16 PM.png

I ended up adding a handful of filters so you can look at the data from a multitude of angles. Beyond looking at specific states, you can look at number of undergrads, grad rates, specific institutions, etc (again–sorry for mobile users. This one is virtually useless unless you are on a desktop).

View this visualization in a new tab

I’ve got to be honest and say that I’ve spent more time building the visualization than I have playing with the data. So if you find anything particularly interesting to you, please let me know in the comments. I’m also happy to visualize the data in a different manner if you would like custom views.

The main reason for the leading group is that Derek Houston, a visiting professor, was able to get Sara to come to campus to speak. This is my second time already this year where I’ve had the opportunity to rewatch a keynote presentation from OpenEd. I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel to have those opportunities but also how valuable it is to watch anything twice. It’s like your favorite movies; the first view is awe and surprise while the second viewing allows you to catch the nuisances of what makes the work really special. I don’t quite have the words to describe the feeling quite yet, but there’s something swirling in my head about watching these talks both pre and post election and being reminded about the issues at stake. There’s something about being grounded in the type of work people like Gardner and Sara are doing. I think Gardner would firmly agree with the quote from Sara’s talk about OU (below)

I want to say thank you to Sara Goldrick-Rab for a number of things. First, you’ve been really inspiring to me as a scholar and an advocate and I so admire somebody who is  willing to play both of those roles in higher education. Second, thanks for jumpstarting a larger conversation around serving Pell Grant recipients at OU at both the faculty reading group level as well as the institution. And, last, thank you for inspiring me to look closer at my own local data, issues, and potential pathways forward.