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Last year's upgrade of the federal government's primary higher education database for the first time allowed researchers to track graduation rates for recipients of Pell Grants. Now Third Way, a center-left think tank, has released an analysis of the new Pell graduation-rate data.

The group found that just under half of first-time, full-time Pell recipients earned a bachelor's degree within six years at the college where they first enrolled. And only 47 percent of institutions awarded degrees to more than half of the Pell recipients who initially enrolled.

"Taxpayers invest billions of dollars in Pell Grants because they provide a pathway to increased social and economic mobility for millions of low- and moderate-income students each year," Third Way said. "However, as this analysis shows, there is wide variation right now in the degree to which institutions admit and succeed with this population. This is in large part because there is little accountability to ensure our investment goes towards institutions that actually help their Pell students succeed."