Ed Trust: Cut off aid to low-quality colleges

Every year, $15 billion goes to “college dropout factories” and “diploma mills,” according to Tough Love, a new Education Trust report. These are four-year colleges and universities in the bottom 5 percent nationally in graduation rates and student loan repayment rates. In addition, some institutions — including some state universities — admit few low- and moderate-income students eligible for Pell Grants. Tough Love proposes linking federal aid, tax benefits and charitable deductions to minimum standards for access and success:

Pell, full-time freshman enrollment: 17 percent

Six-year, full-time freshman graduation rate: 15 percent

Student loan repayment rate (three-year cohort default rate: 28 percent)

Colleges would have three to four years to meet the standards, the report proposes.

“The federal government writes a $180 billion check annually to thousands of colleges and universities using taxpayer dollars to fund schools from the highest performing to the lowest, with virtually no consideration of institutional performance on access, success, or student loan repayment measures,” said Michael Dannenberg, director of higher education and education finance policy and a co-author of the report. “Schools falling beneath the bottom fifth percentile on these measures represent the ‘worst of the worst,’” said Mary Nguyen Barry, higher education policy analyst and co-author. “Establishing goals without consequences . . . won’t protect students from a lifetime of mounds of debt, a meaningless degree, or no degree at all.”

Many for-profit colleges enroll a high percentage of low-income, non-white and adult students. They tend to have low graduation rates and high default rates. However, also in the bottom 5 percent are a number of historically black colleges as well as “minority-serving” institutions with heavy Latino and Native American enrollments. Linking aid to student success would be politically difficult.

Elite universities and private colleges that can’t afford much financial aid tend to admit few Pell-eligible students. These “engines of inequality” have a lot of political clout too.

Pell reforms under discussion

Reforming Pell Grants was the topic of a House subcommittee hearing last week. Witnesses discussed tightening eligibility, disbursing checks every few weeks, linking checks to attendance and requiring financial aid counseling, among other ideas. Congress is preparing to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which sets rules for student aid, notes Community College Daily.

 Members of the House Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee—as well as the four witnesses from the higher education sector—agreed that the Pell program, which has swelled to about $30 billion a year, needs some adjusting to curtail costs and to ensure that students who need financial assistance the most get it—and that they succeed in college. But they differed on how to do it.

“There is concern among members of the higher education community and of my colleagues in Congress that Pell has strayed too far from its original intent,” said subcommittee chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who noted that the program serves more than 9 million students.

Grants should be targeted at low-income students, said Jenna Ashley Robinson, outreach director at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Too many middle-income students are eligible for aid now, she said

Pell has helped broaden access to college, said Michael Dannenberg of the Education Trust. “The percentage of low-income students going to college today is twice what it was 40 years ago when the Pell Grant program began,” he said. “We’ve cut the gap between low-income and upper-income students’ college access rates by 40 percent.” More than 90 percent of Pell recipients come from families with incomes of less than $50,000, according to Dannenberg.

The discussions at the hearing touched on a number of areas—from providing yearround Pell Grants in order to accommodate students who take college courses during winter and summer breaks, to whether student aid contributes to escalating college costs. But a good part of it focused on ensuring that students who received grants were attending classes. Robinson noted that Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina does not disburse grant money to students if they haven’t attended class during the first 10 percent of the semester, and the college tracks students’ academic progress.

Richard Heath, director of student financial services at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, outlined strategies to prevent fraud and abuse. These include: monitoring out-of-state addresses and multiple applications from the same address, working with faculty to provide accurate attendance records, requiring students to meet with an advisor during the first three weeks of school to receive their Pell check and using a federal database to check on student aid applicants.

College Scorecard earns ‘meh’ rating

In the State of the Union speech, President Obama promised to control college costs and provide a College Scorecard to help students and parents compare costs, graduation rates and loan repayments for any college or university.  Some of the data is old and most has been available from other sources, reports the New York Times.

Further, the information is presented as averages and medians that might have little relevance to individual families. The scorecard does connect to each institution’s net price calculator, which allows individualized cost estimates, but it does not provide side-by-side comparisons of multiple schools, as other government sites do.

Meanwhile the Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project is generating more ideas.

In Aligning the Means and the Ends, The Institute for College Access & Success calls for doubling the maximum Pell Grant and giving students 7 1/2 years to complete a degree. Colleges should be rewarded for serving low-income students, TICAS urges. In addition, the white paper recommends:

 • Use IRS data to simplify financial aid applications

• Combine income-based loan repayment programs into one plan that assures borrowers of manageable payments and forgiveness after 20 years.

• Eliminate higher education tax benefits and use the savings for Pell Grants and incentives for states and colleges to educate low-income students.

“For students who are willing to study, work, or serve their communities, the federal and state governments, along with their institutions, should make sure they can afford to go to college without the fear of crushing student loan debt,” argues the Education Trust in Doing Away With Debt. the Education Trust.

By taking the federal resources we already spend on higher education and focusing them like a laser on reducing college costs for families with incomes below $115,000 a year (the bottom 80 percent) — providing debt-free education to those below $50,000 (the bottom 40 percent) and no-interest loans with income-based repayment to the rest — we can do much to solve this critical problem without adding to the overall cost of federal student aid.

National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ policy brief discusses reforming student loans, improving consumer information, “rethinking entitlement and professional judgment and ensuring that colleges and students have “skin in the game.”

Equal access, but less success

More students are starting — and completing — college, according to Replenishing Opportunity in America, an Education Trust report on its Access to Success Initiative. “Improvements are driven largely by African-American, Latino, American-Indian and low-income students.”

At community colleges, low-income and minority students are well represented.  At four-year institutions, the access gap for low-income freshmen has been cut in half, but there’s been little progress for black and Hispanic students.

When it comes to success, the report is not as positive.

Success rates at two-year colleges remain low, and gaps persist. Four-year institutions have made gains, improving graduation rates for all students. But success among low-income students and students of color has not yet moved fast enough to begin closing the completion gaps.

The gap in college attainment rates between white students and students of color is bigger now than it was in the 1970s, Ed Trust warns.

‘College for all’ gets second look

The “college for all” idea is getting a second look, reports Ed Week.

“That whole space, between a high school diploma and a four-year college degree, has been overlooked,” says Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, whose labor-market research was cited in the “Pathways to Prosperity” report. “The reform trajectory we’ve been on since ‘A Nation at Risk’ was a noble goal, but along the way, we’ve set aside every pathway but one, and we’ve left a lot of people behind.”

Most young Americans do not complete a four-year degree. Only 56 percent of four-year college students will earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s, points out Pathways to Prosperity.

Two thirds of the jobs created in the United States by 2018 will require some postsecondary education, but of those, nearly half will go to people with occupational certificates or associate degrees, according to data cited in the report. Many of those jobs carry decent wages, as well: One-quarter of those who hold such credentials earn more than the average bachelor’s-degree holder, the report says.

However, many educators and education reformers fear lowering expectations for disadvantaged and minority students. Steering students toward vocational certificates or associate degrees will form an “educational caste system,” according to Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, which advocates for educational opportunities for low-income and minority students.

Only a third of young people complete a bachelor’s degree. Not surprisingly, the A students are the most likely to reach that goal. Making a four-year degree the universal goal means setting up most young people for failure.

Low-income students ‘priced out’ of most colleges

Only five of the nation’s 1,186 four-year colleges and universities give low-income students a reasonable chance to earn a bachelor’s degree at an affordable cost, concludes a new Education Trust report, Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial-Aid Policies Hurt Low-Income Students (pdf). A sixth, Berea College in Kentucky, charges no tuition.

Ed Trust looked at what students pay after receiving financial aid. The average low-income family must spend 72 percent of annual household income to send one child to a four-year college. Middle-class families contribute 27 percent of household income and wealthy families spend 14 percent.

Ed Trust looked for colleges with a net price (total attendance cost minus total grant aid) of $4,600 or less, a graduation rate of at least 50 percent, and at least 30 percent enrollment by students from low-income families. Not a single public flagship university made the list. The only private non-profit was Berea, a liberal arts school with no net price. It’s free.

With a focus on the Appalachian region, Berea largely enrolls students of modest means, and manages to support their studies through a sizeable endowment, required work-study, and a “plain living” budget. The college can point to academic success as well, having boosted its six-year graduation rate from 50 percent in 2002 to 65 percent in 2009.

The affordable public universities are: the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, two City University of New York (CUNY) schools, Queens College and Baruch College, and Fullerton State and Long Beach State in California.

All are based in states which outpace their peers in providing need-based financial aid. What’s more, each of the five universities has a clear commitment to closing gaps of access and success between high-income and low-income students, and between students of color and white students.

Pell Grants for low-income students are under attack in Congress. If the rapidly growing grant program is cut, it will be even harder for low-income students to afford college.

Closing the graduation gap

Universities brag about recruiting minority students, but what about graduating them? The college graduation gap for blacks and Hispanics is disturbing, reports Education Trust.

At private institutions, 73.4 percent of white students earned their degrees within six years, while only 54.7 percent of black students and 62.9 percent of Hispanic students made it through the schools they started.

Some colleges and universities have closed the graduation gap, such as Georgia State and University of Miami.  Others show huge gaps: University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee graduates 17.9 percent of blacks, 26.1 percent of Hispanics and 46.1 percent of whites.

The graduation gap

Two Education Trust reports highlight colleges with the largest and smallest gaps in graduating African-American and Hispanic students within six years.

Nationally, 60 percent of whites but only 49 percent of Latinos and 40 percent of African Americans who start college hold bachelor’s degrees six years later, Education Trust reports.

  • At Wayne State University in Detroit, for example, fewer than one in ten African Americans graduate within six years. For white students at Wayne State, the success rate is more than four times higher.
  • The success rate among Hispanic students attending City University of New York’s Brooklyn College is 34 percent, compared with a 53 percent graduation rate for white students.
  • Colleges that have eliminated graduation gaps include:  Old Dominion University in Virginia, where blacks typically graduate at the same rates as white students; Florida International University, where Hispanic students are more likely to graduate than whites; University of California, Riverside, which graduates black (67 percent), Latino (63 percent) and white (62 percent) students; University of North Carolina-Greensboro, which graduates 56 percent of African-American students and 51 percent of white students.