Getting More Students Through — Not Just To — College

What will it take to help more students graduate from college?

Federal leaders are considering that question and a proposed College Completion Fund designed to provide services for people who may benefit from extra support as they pursue a degree. That group includes students from low-income families, students with disabilities, veterans, parents, those who are the first in their families to attend college and racial minorities.

The measure aims to fix a longstanding problem in American higher education: Many more people start college than finish on time, within six years—or ever.

The national six-year college completion rate was 60.1 percent for students who started in fall 2014, according to a 2020 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“Colleges have been like sieves,” said U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro during a briefing earlier this month about higher ed completion.

Mentioned in President Biden’s American Families Plan and explained in more detail in a bill introduced in mid-September by U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, the College Completion Fund Act would empower the U.S. Department of Education to award $62 billion in grants over a decade to states and public colleges that develop plans to help students complete their college degrees. It follows the reintroduction this summer of the Community College Student Success Act, which would also pay for support services for students.

These proposals could help address the fact that colleges serving the highest number of low-income students and students of color tend to have the fewest financial resources. According to Pew Research Center, “the rise of poor and minority undergraduates has been most pronounced in public two-year colleges and the least selective four-year colleges and universities.” And the bills acknowledge the fact that other higher ed policy proposals currently on the table, including making community colleges tuition-free, might not be enough to get some students across the finish line.

There’s a special emphasis in the new College Completion Fund plan as presented by Sen. Heinrich on “evidence-based student success programs.” The bill specifies such strategies may include coaching; tutoring; mental health care; child care; assistance paying for basic needs such as housing and food; incentives to keep students on track; and institutional reforms to remedial education and transfer processes.

Several institutions have already had success putting these kinds of programs into action. For example, Georgia State University, which serves many students of color and low-income students, has improved its graduation rate by investing in academic advising and a predictive analytics system that identifies students who may be struggling. The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs intervention, developed by the City University of New York, has boosted completion rates by providing students with intensive advising, tutoring, tuition support, money for transportation, free textbooks and special course schedules.

Student support services aren’t the only tools colleges can use or changes they can make to help more students graduate. The Association of American Colleges & Universities has identified a set of “high-impact educational practices” shown through research to improve student retention, including first-year seminars, learning communities, undergraduate research opportunities and service-learning programs. Experts have also noted a set of common barriers to graduation that could be avoided if colleges changed their practices. Those hurdles include requiring specific final courses to graduate, requiring students to pay small institutional debts like unpaid parking tickets before getting a diploma and requiring that students actively apply to graduate.

Research and advocacy organizations and associations that have endorsed the College Completion Fund Act include the Institute of Higher Education Policy, Third Way, the Education Trust, America Forward, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the New America Higher Education Program, Results for America, The Institute for College Access and Success and the University of New Mexico.

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