Millions in Federal Grants for Community College Students Left on the Table

New Report From UC Davis School of Education Finds Nearly 70,000 Eligible Low-Income Students Do Not Receive the Pell Grant

Money left on table
Getty Images

Quick Summary

  • Large variation in campus take-up rates
  • More financial aid counseling may be needed
  • Pell awards not received total nearly $130 million statewide in single semester

Millions of dollars in federal aid are left unclaimed by California community college students, according to a research brief released today by the Wheelhouse Center for Community College Leadership and Research at the University of California, Davis, School of Education.

A significant percentage of students don’t receive the federal aid for which they may be eligible. Although the reasons are unclear, part of the explanation may be that students don’t fill out the necessary verification paperwork or face other barriers to understanding how to access the funds. More financial aid counseling resources may improve follow-up to ensure students receive the information and help they need, and may ameliorate these problems, the report said. Future research will explore these factors.

The Wheelhouse report, “Money Left on the Table: An Analysis of Pell Grant Receipt Among Financially Eligible Community College Students in California,” found more than 20 percent of California community college students who apply for financial aid and appear to meet eligibility criteria still do not receive the Pell Grant, which is federal aid for low-income undergraduate students. This amounts to approximately $130 million in a single semester, researchers said. On average, California community college Pell Grant recipients receive about $2,100 per semester.

“The federal Pell Grant program provides a vital resource to offset the full costs of attendance and help our students be successful,” said California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. “The Wheelhouse findings are a call to action for our system, to ensure students are receiving the aid for which they are eligible and that financial aid offices are adequately funded to perform these duties.”


The report, compiled by Paco Martorell, associate professor, and Elizabeth Friedmann, a postdoctoral researcher, both in the UC Davis School of Education, found that rates of students receiving the Pell Grant vary widely by campus, ranging from 60 to 90 percent. This suggests that college leaders and campus financial aid administrators may play an important local role in ensuring that eligible students receive the federal support they deserve.

Federal grant applications are complex. For instance, the Pell Grant, unlike many other grant programs, can be used for living costs — including books and housing — which may not be understood by some eligible students, according to the report.

“By strengthening financial aid advising and removing unnecessary barriers, we can connect low-income students to resources that help them stay on track to degree or transfer,” researchers said.

The authors, going forward, will further research factors that led to students missing out on Pell Grants in order to better understand the variation in campus take-up rates. They’ll also assess how failure to receive Pell Grants affects students’ academic success.

The College Futures Foundation provided support for Money Left on the Table and its dissemination.

Media Resources

Karen Nikos-Rose, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-219-5472,

Eva Guralnick, UC Davis School of Education, 530-750-9667,

Primary Category

Secondary Categories

Society, Arts & Culture