Perhaps the only aspect of a Tuesday meeting hosted by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance that wasn’t innovative was an overreliance on the word “innovative” in the daylong discussion.
But there were innovators everywhere. Some preached the positives of making middle school parents and students more aware of college financial aid options. Others talked about early college high school initiatives that provide an appropriate “dose” of college credit in high school to encourage degree attainment. Many talked about money, like the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s recent multimillion dollar partnership  with several elite institutions to build the pipeline between two-year and highly selective four-year colleges.
The public hearing, titled “Innovative Pathways to Baccalaureate Degree Attainment,” was the first of several sessions that committee members plan to hold with various educators, policy experts and lawmakers nationwide, in an effort to produce a study of programs and strategies that help low- and moderate-income students succeed in higher education. The committee,  established by Congress in 1986, periodically makes recommendations intended to maintain access to postsecondary education for such students.
“In conducting the Innovative Pathways Study, we will focus on ways to eliminate major structural barriers -- academic, institutional and financial -- currently facing low- and moderate- income students from middle school through college,” said Clare Cotton, chair of the committee. “The notion that there is a silver bullet, say in the form of a rigorous high school curriculum, that renders all other socioeconomic factors irrelevant is not only incorrect, but particularly unhelpful in the formation of education policy.”
According to committee officials, an eighth grader from a high-income family is almost 10 times more likely to attain a baccalaureate degree than an eighth grader from a low-income family.
Officials explained that over the course of the next three years, the committee will produce a series of reports that will highlight creative and promising approaches to ensure that low- and moderate-income students are able to move through the “access and persistence pipeline” in an efficient, effective and timely manner. While a final report on the project isn’t expected until 2009, reports and recommendations will be released throughout the coming months, designed to encourage federal, state and institutional policy makers to embrace practices that will narrow income-related gaps in degree completion.
When members of the audience of policy experts were asked by committee officials what they didn’t want to see as part of the study, Allison Jones, assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs at the California State University system, said the panel should remain driven by what is best for students. “We need a good idea about the assessment of programs,” he said. “We don’t need to study what the problem is anymore. We need to stop talking about it and find programs that work and put them into the federal agenda.”
“We need the K-12 institutions to push and we need the higher education systems to pull,” Shirley Ort, of the College Board’s Task Force on Access for Students from Low-Income Backgrounds, said in her testimony during the hearing. She said that the committee’s past reports have been far-reaching and is pleased that officials have chosen to focus on studying best practices in their efforts to help students succeed.
Cotton, the former head of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, made clear that the committee does not assume that every student from a low- or moderate-income family must or should get a bachelor’s degree. “On the contrary … they should have the opportunity to do so, if that is their aspiration,” he said. “But we simply reject the notion that finances should decide who gets a bachelor’s degree and who doesn’t.”