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In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision banning race-based affirmative action in college admissions, economic diversity in higher education has come under increased scrutiny. And with the average cost of a bachelor’s degree reaching six figures, college access has become a critical topic for students, families and policymakers.
Of course, the rise of distance learning has removed some barriers to higher ed. Thanks to online colleges, students no longer need to relocate near campus or sacrifice their day jobs to go back to school. But financial access to higher education still presents some significant hurdles.
Analysts commonly use data on federal Pell Grants, which serve low-income undergraduate students, to measure economic diversity in college. We’ve formulated a methodology to rank the most economically diverse online colleges in the U.S. based on recent Pell Grant data. Keep reading to learn about the most Pell Grant-friendly online schools.
One year of tuition, fees, and room and board at a four-year college costs $30,031 on average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). That’s upwards of $120,000 for a bachelor’s degree.
Learners can cut some costs by studying online. For example, distance learners might opt out of campus housing, which averages $12,780 per year, according to NCES. They may also avoid some fees and expenses associated with relocation and transportation. Plus, many public colleges—which usually charge higher tuition rates to out-of-state students—extend reduced tuition to online learners, regardless of their state residency status.
But even with reduced fees and relatively low tuition rates, a bachelor’s degree can put any student out thousands of dollars. Many learners turn to student aid resources to help them shoulder the financial burden. Nearly 40% of undergraduate students took out federal student loans in the 2020–21 academic year, NCES reports, with the average first-time, full-time undergraduate student taking out $7,700 in loans annually.
What Is a Pell Grant?
Federal Pell Grants help fund college for undergraduate students who demonstrate significant financial need.
As of the 2023–24 school year, Federal Student Aid provides Pell Grant recipients up to $7,395 per year toward their education expenses. The exact award amount varies based on each recipient’s expected family contribution, enrollment status and college attendance plans, plus the cost of attendance at their chosen school.
NCES reports that 32% of undergraduate students received Pell Grants in the 2021–22 academic year.
Pell Grant Eligibility
Students must submit a form called the FAFSA® to get a Pell Grant, and recipients need to resubmit every year to maintain eligibility. Other eligibility criteria include:
- Have undergraduate student status
- Do not have an existing degree (in most cases)
- Demonstrate financial need (cost of attendance exceeds expected family contribution)
- Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
- Have a valid Social Security number
- Meet school standards for satisfactory academic progress toward a degree
- Do not be in default on a federal student loan or owe money on a federal student grant
- Agree to use the Pell Grant for educational expenses only
- Qualify for college by holding a high school diploma, having a GED® certificate, completing high school in a homeschool setting or enrolling in an approved career pathway program and meeting additional eligibility requirements
Best Online Colleges for Students With Pell Grants
Below we’ve ranked the best online colleges in the U.S. for Pell Grant recipients. The top schools have large shares of students receiving Pell Grants and high graduation rates among those students.
We’ve also supplied each school’s overall graduation rate for comparison. Pell Grant recipients attending the schools at the top of our list tend to graduate at similar rates to their peers, indicating that low-income students at these schools get the support they need to succeed in college. The lower-ranking schools generally see larger graduation rate gaps between Pell Grant students and other learners.
Our top-ranked online schools for Pell Grant students are as follows, including the discrepancy in graduation rates between Pell Grant recipients and all students for each:
For this ranking, we considered only accredited, nonprofit colleges offering at least five fully online bachelor’s degrees.
Lowest-Ranking Online Schools for Pell Grant Recipients
Schools that ranked poorly for Pell Grant-friendliness had lower rates of students receiving Pell Grants and lower graduation rates among those students. In many cases, these colleges had relatively low overall graduation rates as well.
We’ve listed our five lowest-scoring schools below, including the graduation rate gap between Pell Grant recipients and all learners for each:
The Future of Economic Diversity in College: Pell Grants and College Access
In June 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to ban affirmative action from the college admissions process. As a result, colleges can no longer consider race as an admissions factor.
Some have suggested that colleges consider economic class instead of race in their admissions processes, working around the Supreme Court’s ruling to maintain classroom diversity. This would involve giving an advantage to college applicants from low-income backgrounds, such as Pell Grant-eligible students.
However, admitting more low-income applicants could increase demand for student aid. An analysis by the Brookings Institution found that while class-based affirmative action could be effective in creating racial diversity, it would also require more funding to meet financial aid demands, making the process difficult to sustain.
We used the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to draft a list of accredited, nonprofit colleges offering at least five fully online bachelor’s degrees. We then used IPEDS to source recent data on Pell Grant awards and graduation rates for each school on our list. We used the following metrics to rank the most Pell Grant-friendly online colleges in the United States:
- Percentage of undergraduate students awarded Pell Grants (2022)
- Percentage of Pell Grant recipients who graduated within 150% of normal time (2022)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About the Best Online Schools for Pell Grant Recipients
What is the difference between a Pell Grant and the FAFSA?
The FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the form used to apply for federal student aid, including Pell Grants. A Pell Grant is a form of aid.
Do you pay back a Pell Grant?
No, grants—including Pell Grants—do not require repayment.
Who is not eligible for a Pell Grant?
You may not qualify for a Pell Grant if you are a graduate student, do not demonstrate significant financial need or have already earned a degree.
What is the highest income for a Pell Grant?
There is no specific income threshold for a Pell Grant, but recipients generally have “exceptional” financial need based on their college’s cost of attendance and their expected family contribution.