Shifting Focus From Access to Completion

President Biden's proposal to invest $62 billion in student success represents a shift in federal higher education policy.

May 3, 2021
 
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Details surrounding President Biden’s proposed investment of $62 billion to support student completion and retention in higher education are scarce, but experts say there’s potential for the program to be the most transformative of the administration’s postsecondary proposals.

The grant program would offer funding to colleges and universities that serve high numbers of low-income students, particularly community colleges, to adopt success solutions that help students stay enrolled and earn a degree.

“This, to me, seems like the most revolutionary and has the most potential to really address equity gaps and get resources to schools and students that need them the most and that haven't gotten them historically,” said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at New America.

The $62 billion proposal is a part of Biden’s American Families Plan, released last week, which includes a total of $290 billion in higher education spending to offer tuition-free community college, support for historically Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions, and increased Pell Grant awards. According to a fact sheet for the plan, states, territories and tribes would receive grant funding to allocate to colleges "that adopt innovative, proven solutions for student success," including wraparound services, emergency basic needs grants and transfer agreements between colleges.

The student success proposal represents a partial shift in focus at the federal level -- from helping students access and afford college to now helping students stay in and complete college, said Tamara Hiler, director of education at Third Way.

“Unlike in K-12, we do very little at the federal level in higher education to recognize and reward institutions that are taking in either an above-average share of Pell students or underserved populations and providing them additional resources and capacity to help them improve student success,” Hiler said.

Inequities persist in college completion for low-income students and students of color, said Mamie Voight, interim president at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. And the myriad reasons that students leave college -- from work obligations to the lack of availability of required courses -- often weigh unequally on students, she said.

“The programs and practices that receive investment through this program should combat racial and economic disparities in college completion and degree attainment, be responsive to the needs and experiences of each institution and the students they serve, and account for the critical role of data in addressing inequities,” Voight said.

The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, is a gold standard example of the type of initiatives that the $62 billion investment could fund, according to Hiler and Laitinen.

“It has probably the most dramatic increases in completion and retention that we've seen from an intervention,” Laitinen said.

CUNY’s ASAP offers a number of supports to the community college students it serves, including free public transportation, assistance with the cost of textbooks, a dedicated adviser from enrollment to graduation and special class registration options, among others. Recent data show that students in ASAP are twice as likely to graduate in three years, compared to those who aren’t in the program.

“It’s those types of small interventions that can make a really big difference in a student’s ultimate ability to graduate,” Hiler said.

The structure of Biden’s proposed grant program could potentially look similar to one from the secondary level in the creation of a “Title I for higher education” -- a reference to the federal aid program for K-12 schools created by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 -- which Third Way proposed in 2018. That could mean the federal government would provide resources to states, and states would then use those resources to supplement institutional funding at colleges based on the student populations they serve, said Hiler.

The America’s College Promise Act, led by Democratic senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Democratic representative Andy Levin of Michigan -- which some are saying could be the blueprint for Biden’s free community college plan -- also includes provisions that would create a federal Student Success Fund.

The legislation would provide federal grant money to states and Native American tribes to improve student outcomes based on a formula developed by the secretary of education. In the first four years of the program, states and tribes would have to match 25 percent of the funding received from the federal government, with that amount increasing over time. The legislation also includes a provision mandating that the grant funds are a “supplement, not supplant,” which Laitinen said is a critical part of the design of the Biden grant program.

“This is a lot of money, and we need to make sure that states don't use this as an excuse to back out their appropriations,” Laitinen said. “They need a good, robust, well-funded, well-supported office of enforcement that makes sure that these funds aren't supplanting other funds.”

Over all, Laitinen said it’s important for the design of the program to be targeted, rather than allowing states and institutions to simply fill out a blank check.

“While $62 billion is a lot, if you spend it on anything and everything and not on evidence-based practices that help particular communities, then you're not going to end up moving the needle on equity,” Laitinen said. “If we're going to make this investment, we've got to make it count.”

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