Episode 94: The $140 billion investment no one is tracking

Are student loans and grants working?

Nijay Williams had a plan. Graduate high school, go to college, and start a business.

Nijay says he has always had an entrepreneurial streak. Back in high school, he made money as a deejay and party promoter, but he knew he needed some new skills — management, accounting, marketing — if he was going to fulfill his dream of owning his own bar.

And we, the American taxpayers, invested in Nijay’s dream. He got a Pell Grant for about $6,000 from the U.S. government, and enrolled in Tennessee State University, a four-year school near his home in Nashville. But almost right away, Nijay struggled to keep up with the workload.

“When I was in high school, the most they had me write was a three-hundred-word essay, a five paragraph essay,” Nijay said.

Now, he was assigned five-page papers. He also was working full-time, and could never make the school’s limited tutoring hours work with his restaurant shifts. Nijay failed two of his classes, lost his Pell Grant, and couldn’t pay his tuition. He dropped out after his freshman year.

Nijay’s story and others like it have policymakers of all political stripes asking whether the $140 billion annual investment we make in student loans and grants to college students is bringing us enough of a return. More specifically, they’re asking whether schools such as Tennessee State should be held accountable for not doing enough to make sure that students like Nijay graduate.

And they’re also asking questions. How well do students do in the workforce? What percentage of Pell Grant recipients graduate?

DecodeDC podcast hosts Elizabeth Scheltens and Robert Smith of NPR’s Planet Money ask the same questions in this week’s show, plus they explore one other surprising fact: In order to get the answer answer to some of those questions, you would have to break the law.

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