Pell Grants help low- and moderate-income students go to college, but graduation rates are low. In an Education Next forum, Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families and Brookings’ Budgeting for National Priorities Project, and Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin, discuss what to do about it.
Target federal aid to low-income, college-ready students, argues Sawhill. Needy students who are likely to complete a degree could get more money, if well-to-do families gave up their tax subsidies and low performers weren’t eligible for Pell.
According to 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, only a small fraction of high school seniors are at or above proficiency in math and reading: 26 percent and 28 percent, respectively. This lack of preparation makes it difficult for them to do college-level work. For example, of younger students enrolling in college in 2003–04 with a high school grade-point average (GPA) below 2.0, only 16 percent had received a degree six years later, while 84 percent had not. The question we need to ask is whether taxpayers should foot the bill for students whose odds of success are so low.
Currently, Pell Grants are available to anyone with a high school diploma or GED. That doesn’t predict the ability to do college-level work, Sawhill writes.
Linking Pell to academic performance denies help to those who need help most, responds Goldrick-Rab. Instead, she proposes increasing the size of grants so low-income students can work less and study more.
While 54 percent of wealthy Americans complete college, only 9 percent of low-income Americans earn a degree, Goldrick-Rab writes. The college gap is growing.
The K–12 system remains overwhelmingly unequal, and chaining Pell eligibility to it even further ensures that both ends of the educational process remain unequally distributed. It transforms the Pell Grant from a policy aimed at transforming lives to one that simply rewards students lucky enough to be born into situations where their families are able to seize good high-school educations for them.
When it was first created, “the Pell Grant covered nearly 90 percent of the costs of attending a public college or university,” writes Goldrick-Rab. Today, the maximum $5,550 grant covers 30 percent of the average costs at state universities.
President Obama has proposed rating colleges and universities by “value.” One measure would be the graduation rate of Pell Grant recipients. Linking Pell to performance would make colleges look a lot better.
After growing very rapidly, the Pell program is running a $1.7 billion budget surplus this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Don’t give up on the longshots, writes Matt Reed. “Open-door public colleges exist to give people options.”
“Undermatching” — disadvantaged achievers may not apply to selective colleges — was the focus of President Obama’s higher education summit. But the most effective way to help low-income students is to improve community colleges, writes Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher’s College Columbia, in Inside Higher Ed. “The reality is that even in a perfectly matched world, millions of low-income, minority, first-generation, and immigrant students will continue to enroll in community colleges.”
Community colleges have been extremely successful at opening the doors to college for disadvantaged students, but thus far, they have had less success in helping them graduate. Less than 40 percent of students who start in community colleges complete a credential in six years. The success rates are worse for low-income and minority students.
In the past, reform initiatives “have focused too narrowly,” writes Bailey. It’s not enough to change remedial education or the first semester. What’s needed is “comprehensive and transformative reform.”
What the CCRC calls the “guided pathways model” provides structure and guidance in “all aspects of the student experience, from preparation and intake to completion,” Bailey writes.
The model includes robust services to help students choose career goals and majors. It features the integration of developmental education into college-level courses and the organization of the curriculum around a limited number of broad subject areas that allows for coherent programs of study. And, importantly, it stresses the strong, ongoing collaboration between faculty, advisers and staff.
Initiatives such as the Gates-funded Completion by Design and Lumina’s Finish Faster are advancing such comprehensive reforms by helping colleges and college systems create clear course pathways within programs of study that lead to degrees, transfer and careers.
The new Guttman Community College at the City University of New York (CUNY) is experimenting with a full range of reforms, including the guided pathways model, concludes Bailey. CUNY’s holistic ASAP program has improved completion rates significantly.
A new analysis by the University of Michigan’s Michael N. Bastedo and Allyson Flaster questions key assumptions behind undermatching research, reports Inside Higher Ed. What’s far more important than enrolling in a more or less selective four-year institution is whether a student enrolls in community college, write Basteo and Flaster. Starting at community college significantly lowers the odds of earning a bachelor’s degree, they write.
Colleges and universities will compete for fewer white, affluent students, according to demographic projections. That could drive some tuition-dependent private colleges out of business.
The number of black students is declining too, while the number of Latino and Asian-American students will increase significantly in the next decade. “The nation’s already seeing a sharp rise in first-generation and low-income graduates, reports the Chronicle of Higher Ed.
Some colleges and universities have stepped up recruiting of first-generation students, but most apply to low-cost community colleges.
The number of high-school graduates is projected to drop sharply in several Midwestern and Northeastern states.
Who Will Reach College Age in the Next 14 Years? shows demographic changes, interactively, down to the county level.
Nationally, the number of college-age whites will decline by 14.8 percent and blacks by 8.9 percent over the next 14 years, while college-age Latinos will rise by 13.7 percent and Asians by 14.6 percent.
“We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that’s at the heart of America,” President Obama said at a White House summit on higher education. “If we as a nation can … reach out to [low-income] young people and help them not just go to college, but graduate from college or university, it could have a transformative effect.”
The “story of opportunity through education is the story of my life,” said First Lady Michelle Obama, who grew up in a working-class family and went to Princeton.
The administration asked colleges and universities to encourage low-income students to apply to challenging schools, start college preparation earlier, expand college advising and improve college remediation.
In California, the three branches of the higher education system – community colleges, state universities, and the University of California – will jointly reach out to seventh-graders in the state to encourage them to prepare for college and understand financial aid options.
Only 1 in 4 community college students in remedial classes go on to earn a degree, notes the White House report, Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students. Summit participants have committed to “strengthening instruction, using technology, better supporting students in remediation, and reducing the need for remediation.”
Achieving the Dream, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Jobs for the Future will work with community colleges and other higher education groups to develop and implement promising practices that accelerate progression through remediation and gateway courses.
Update: It was “a productive meeting,” Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, told Community College Daily. “It will be the broad access institutions that will play the big role — not the nation’s elite universities. There needs to be more focus on leveraging the nation’s community colleges to promote access and college/university completion at more affordable rates.”
“The summit helped to reframe the current rhetoric around higher education, away from the issues of rating and affordability, to issues of access for low-income students, our importance for economic competitiveness, and the need for increased public and private investment in our work,” said Karen Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College (Pennsylvania). “The administration has clearly recognized our role in workforce development. I am pleased that our important role in transfer was recognized today in such a public way, by so many, including our university colleagues.”
Forty-six percent of Latinos who graduated from high-scoring public high schools enrolled in a community college, according to a USC study. That compares to 23 percent of their black classmates, 19 percent of Asians and 27 percent of white students. White and Asian students are much more likely to enroll at a four-year university.
Graduation rates are much lower for students who start at community colleges.
Table 1. College-Attendance Rates of California High School Graduates by Public Higher Education System and Race/Ethnicity, 2010
Community College Attendance Rate
CSU Attendance Rate
UC Attendance Rate
South Pasadena is known for excellent public schools. Of South Pasadena High’s 2010 Latino graduates, 71 percent went straight to community college, reports KPCC. Only about a third of the school’s white and Asian graduates that year attended community college.
“Perhaps certain kinds of college pathways are promoted for different types of students,” said George Washington University education researcher Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux, who authored the study. “We know that tracking is real. We know that differential expectations for academic performance based on things like race and class are real.”
Lower-income students are more likely to choose to a low-cost community college, especially if their parents don’t understand financial aid options.
From Colorado: For low-income students, getting into college is only half the battle. Graduating is a challenge.
“Undermatching” is underthought, writes Mark Schneider on The Quick and the Ed. Improving low-income students’ access to selective colleges is the theme of President Obama’s higher education meeting next week. Michelle Obama, who left a working-class neighborhood in Chicago for Princeton, discussed the issue in a November speech.
“Driven by their own Ivy League experiences,” the Obamas are focusing on a small part of a big problem, writes Schneider.
Certainly, moving a handful of highly prepared and talented low-income students to Ivy League schools is good. They will likely graduate at high rates and get good jobs after graduation. But the number of students in elite colleges is so small that fixing undermatch there simply won’t appreciably increase the percentage of college-educated adults in the US.
Far more important than fixing the elite undermatch “problem” is attending to the performance of community colleges, regional public “comprehensive” campuses, and, yes, the for-profit institutions that together educate most low-income students.
In addition, rating systems or gainful-employment regulations should take into account students’ risk factors, Schneider writes.
Thanks to donors, including Panera Bread, hungry students at Bunker Hill can make themselves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to get through the day, Sloane writes. Every Pell-eligible student — some nine million — should get a free PB&J sandwich every day, he argues. That’s 45 million sandwiches a week.
Many of these students . . . received federal free and reduced lunch in high school, didn’t they? Why? Because their families cannot afford enough food for the family. Why have we, the people, snatched lunch from these low-income students going on to college?
On a Friday last summer, Sloane made five sandwiches to go for a student who was phoning homeless shelters in vain.
What the heck? I put the jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread and a plastic knife into the bag, too.
“All this?” he asked me.
“Sure. Just finish your education, run for president, and make sure no one in the U.S. is ever homeless again,” I said.
“I haven’t seen him again,” writes Sloane.
The neediest students are the least likely to get work-study jobs, writes Jon Marcus in the Washington Monthly. The $1.2 billion federal program uses a 50-year-old formula to distribute funds. Most of the money goes to the most expensive universities, which tend to enroll middle- and upper-middle-class students.
Greg Noll, a senior at Columbia University, balances his engineering major with a federally subsidized “work-study” job at the university’s fitness center, where he fills spray bottles, wipes sweat off the machines, and picks up towels for twenty hours a week. The $9-an-hour wage he’s paid is underwritten by the federal work-study program, which was launched in 1964 to support low-income students who would not otherwise be able to afford college.
. . . Noll’s family . . . makes $140,000 a year, which he says, rightly, puts them squarely in the upper-middle class.
He uses the money for books, food — and going out with friends on weekends.
Only 43 percent of work-study students are needy enough to qualify for Pell Grants, say researchers at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia.
Reformers say the first step would be changing the formula so that work-study funds flow to schools based on how many low-income students they enroll, not how much money they got last year. The second would be allocating more funds, especially for students nearing graduation, to career-focused paid internships off-campus—positions that frequently lead to offers of full-time employment. The third step would be expanding the size of the overall work-study program, perhaps by asking companies that would benefit from more paid internships to underwrite part of the cost.
The Senate Education Committee is holding hearings on updating the financial aid system. However, colleges and universities that receive most of the work-study dollars are expected to fight changes in the funding formula.
Easy come, easy go is the unofficial motto of community colleges. Anyone can enroll. Few will graduate. Daquan McGee escaped the community college trap by enrolling in City University of New York’s structured, guided, get-it-done ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs), writes Ann Hurlbert in The Atlantic.
McGee enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in the spring of 2010. At 19, he’d served two years in prison for attempted robbery. He failed placement tests in writing and math, but passed an intensive remedial writing course over the summer, while working full-time at a Top Tomato Super Store. He opted for ASAP in the fall.
McGee would have to enroll full-time . . . Every other week, he would be required to meet with his adviser, who would help arrange his schedule and track his progress. In addition to his full course load, McGee would have to complete his remaining remedial class, in math, immediately. If he slipped up, his adviser would hear about it from his instructor—and mandatory tutoring sessions would follow. If he failed, he would have to retake the class right away. Also on McGee’s schedule was a non-optional, noncredit weekly College Success Seminar, featuring time-management strategies, tips on study habits and goal setting, exercises in effective communication, and counsel on other life skills. The instructor would be taking attendance. If McGee complied with all that was asked of him, he would be eligible for . . . a free, unlimited MetroCard good for the following month. More important, as long as he stayed on track, the portion of his tuition not already covered by financial aid would be waived.
McGee graduated with an associate’s degree in multimedia studies in two and a half years. (I’d love to know if he’s been able to get a better job. Is he on a career path?)
In urban community colleges, the national three-year graduation rate is 16 percent, Hurlbert writes. “Nationwide, barely more than a third of community-college enrollees emerge with a certificate or degree within six years.”
ASAP, launched in 2007, aims to get half its students to a degree in three years. It appears to be exceeding that goal, according to preliminary results of a three-year study that randomly assigned students to either ASAP or the regular community-college track. “A third of the students who enrolled in ASAP in the spring of 2010 finished in two and a half years (compared with 18 percent of the control group),” Hurlbert writes.
ASAP offers lots of guidance, a dose of goading, and a variety of well-timed incentives to its participants (average age at admission: 21), who must sign on to the goal of graduating within three years. The program is intended primarily for low-income students with moderate remedial needs, and it accepts applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. . . . The implicit philosophy behind the program is simple: students, especially the least prepared ones, don’t just need to learn math or science; they need to learn how to navigate academic and institutional challenges more broadly, and how to plot a course—daily, weekly, monthly—toward long-term success.
The City University of New York spends an average of $9,800 a year for a community college student; ASAP adds another $3,900 per student. That’s a lot — until you calculate the price per graduate. Then, ASAP is a bargain.
California is losing its higher education edge, warns a new report. State universities and community colleges must be redesigned to produce the educated workers the economy needs, said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who commissioned the report.
The percentage of young adults earning associate and bachelor’s degrees in California already is below the U.S. average, warns the Committee for Economic Development, which wrote the report. The higher education system must be redesigned to serve an increasingly diverse and low-income population, CED advised.
Along with boosting graduation rates at Cal State and community college campuses, which enroll the vast majority of the state’s college students, the study calls for greater collaboration with for-profit private colleges, employers and K-12 schools.
Lead author Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that if the state is serious about meeting its “productivity challenge,” it will need to create “new kinds of institutions that take advantage of innovative instructional technologies and business plans to develop nontraditional ways of providing high-quality postsecondary education programs.”
“Modest injections of funding” and “tweaks in current educational policy and practice” won’t be enough to fix California’s underperforming higher education system, said Newsom.