Pell Grants for High School Students Taking Early College Coursework

Early College Designs

Reinventing High Schools for Postsecondary Success

Combining high school and college in a rigorous, supportive environment that enables struggling students to graduate with college credit and the tools for postsecondary success.

Joel Vargas
Vice President, School and Learning Designs
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Pell Grants for High School Students Taking Early College Coursework

This experimental site was approved! Read more.

Jobs for the Future has proposed, as part of the Experimental Sites Initiative of the U.S. Department of Education, to use Pell Grant funding for high school students taking college courses in high school through evidence-based programs like early college schools. Our nation is always exploring ways to use student aid efficiently, and using the funds for early college students could enable these Pell recipients to bypass remedial or developmental education, earn more degrees and credentials, and earn them in less time. 

For more information, please download our proposal, or continue reading below.

Jobs for the Future has also joined with Bard College, City University of New York (CUNY) Early College Initiative, EdWorks, KnowledgeWorks, Middle College National Consortium, and the Ohio Early College Association in submitting this proposal regarding an experimental site around Pell for early college. Please see our other Experimental Site proposal for Ability to Benefit eligibility.


These Early College Designs programs will demonstrate that the use of Pell Grants by high school students to cover the costs of taking college courses, with proper stipulations, increases the efficiency of federal investments in higher education in the following ways:

  • These students will earn degrees at higher rates so that each Pell dollar pays for more college completers.
  • These students will complete a degree in less time, further lowering the cost per college completion subsidized by Pell.
  • The need for remedial course taking will be reduced, decreasing the inefficient use of Pell dollars to pay for students to catch up when they enter college.
  • Because many states already support some costs of college course taking by students in these programs, their investments will combine with Pell Grants to lower loan amounts taken on by graduates to pay for college.


This proposal is based on strong evidence about the efficacy of taking college courses while in high school, including experimental and quasi-experimental studies that show:

  • High school students who complete college courses before graduating are significantly more likely to enroll in and complete college than similar students who do not, including those from low-income backgrounds who would likely qualify for financial assistance in college.
  • Nearly a quarter of students from early college high schools—schools designed so that low-income and other traditionally undeserved students can earn up to two years of college credit—complete an Associate’s degree upon graduating high school. Overall, early college graduates enter college at higher rates than comparable peers, and 94 percent of graduates earn some transferable college credit that can be applied toward a degree.

For more data on early college outcomes, see our latest early college report, or the research page.

The expansion of college course taking by high school students—especially programs for low-income youth and first generation college students—has often been hindered by college course tuition costs that are unaffordable for students and unable to be assumed by sponsoring high school and college partners. If Pell Grants were used to cover tuition for income-eligible students, then more LEAs (Local Education Agencies) and IHEs (Institutions of Higher Education) would be able to expand access to early college programs and increase the efficiency of federal investments in financial assistance.

Design of Selected Programs

Not all dual enrollment or early college programs are designed to improve college outcomes or to reach low-income youth. Many are designed for “gifted and talented” high school students ready of their own accord for more advanced coursework (and less likely to be from low-income backgrounds). Some are designed to supplement the curriculum of rural schools having difficulty offering their own advanced courses. These programs are more often offered as elective programs driven by individual student choice rather than being designed to improve college readiness and degree attainment for all students.

In contrast, early college high schools and other programs that similarly structure students’ access to and support in college courses are designed with the goal of raising the college readiness and degree attainment of entire groups of low-income youth. These types of programs would be prime sites for testing the cost-efficiency of early Pell Grant use by high school students. They target students likely to be eligible for Title IV aid, aim for goals associated with greater productivity in higher education, and would offer a fair level of control, comparability, and feasibility in collecting data regarding students’ experiences and outcomes.

Based on our experience supporting schools with Early College Designs, JFF recommends that programs meet the following criteria to participate as sites in this experiment.

  • Students take courses that are part of a general education core and transferable to public colleges/universities in their home states or that are part of a program of study leading to a postsecondary credential or degree
  • Students are expected to complete at least 12 college credit hours by graduation, including key introductory mathematics (e.g., college algebra or other foundational math requirement for postsecondary program of study) and English composition courses
  • Students are provided with supports such as summer bridge programs, placement test prep strategies, college seminar courses, tutoring, advisories, or comparable strategies to ensure student preparation for and success in college courses
  • IHE and LEA partners collect, share, and use data to inform practice
  • No student is charged tuition, regardless of income level, as an expectation of their compulsory K-12 education (but only Pell-eligible students would receive early federal aid under the experiment)
  • IHE has agreements with LEAs documenting commitments, resources, roles, and responsibilities consistent with the design of the program

In such programs, the use of Pell Grants would be restricted to the following:

  • Courses taken only by Title IV-eligible students based on the required need analysis
  • Non-remedial/non-developmental education courses
  • Students who meet course eligibility requirements established by the college
  • Not to exceed the costs to cover 60 credit hours for any student
  • Pell Grants received during high school will be subtracted from students’ total Pell allotment

Programs would have similar designs but vary in key respects. They comprise a range of IHE partners, including two-year and four-year, public and private colleges and are in states representing a range of public college finance systems.


Research would be designed to understand if students who use Pell Grants to pay for college courses while in high school make more productive use of financial aid, earn college credentials at higher rates, and have lower loan burdens than students with comparable financial need and academic profiles who do not have access to Pell to pay for college courses before graduation. The treatment group would be need-qualified students from IHEs in a documented early college partnership with an LEA. The control group would be need-qualified students with similar academic backgrounds as the treatment group but that do not attend an early college program.

Key Outcomes of Interest

  • Rates of college enrollment after high school
  • Rates of college degrees/credentials earned while in and after high school
  • Number of college credits earned as a high school student that are applied toward degree/credential programs upon enrolling in college
  • Rates of remedial course taking after high school
  • Time to first degree/credential and time to subsequent degree
  • Pell resources used while in and after high school
  • Amount of loans assumed by students after high school to pay for college