By James Murphy
The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress are proposing a paradigm shift in how the federal government supports Americans pursuing postsecondary degrees. In the past, federal support for students was aimed at increasing college access and affordability through individualized student grants and loans. The federal government did little, however, to address the success of those students once they got to campus.
The Biden American Families Plan and pending Congressional legislation aim to redress that shortcoming not just by expanding access to higher education through tuition- and fee-free community college but also by meaningfully addressing America’s college graduation crisis by providing additional support directly to the institutions of higher education that enroll low-income and working-class students. The college completion fund proposals advanced by the Biden administration and in several bills in Congress will allow colleges to implement, improve, and expand evidence-based programs proven to increase retention and degree completion. Much like the federal Title I program for K-12 schools, a college completion fund will drive aid to institutions to help them generate more equitable outcomes among students.
Decades of research into higher education provide evidence of successful pathways to rectifying this injustice. Well-trained high school counselors, dual enrollment and early college high school, postsecondary remedial education course reform, mentors, and wrap-around students services are just some of the measures that high schools and colleges have used in recent years to increase retention and completion rates in higher education.
The existing proposals for a new federal college completion fund have many strengths, but they also miss out on several opportunities to increase the transformative potential of a federal-state partnership that increases not just access and affordability but retention and completion, as well.
In order to maximize the investment in free college and a college completion fund, four additions to existing proposals should be included:
Recommendation 1: Eligibility to participate in a federal-state partnership for free college should be tightly paired with eligibility to participate in a federal-state partnership for college completion, and vice versa.
Recommendation 2: The distribution formula for a college completion fund or what we call a Title I for High School – Higher Education program should include incentives to states and colleges to more equitably distribute their own higher education funding.
Recommendation 3: A portion of college completion funds should be dispersed through competitive grants available to community-based organizations and partnerships between local education agencies and institutions of higher education.
Recommendation 4: A federal-state free college and college completion fund partnership should contain accountability measures, including rewards and punishments, to ensure that both programs are actually increasing college completion overall and among disaggregated subgroups.
What do these recommendations look like in practice? Check back tomorrow, Sept. 9, for the release of Title I for High School – Higher Ed.