Press Release

WASHINGTON — Amid mounting concerns about the cost of college, lawmakers and presidential aspirants have proposed major new partnerships between the federal government and the states to tackle college affordability. But the problem with our higher education system rests only partly with affordability. According to a new report from The Education Trust, moving the needle on college attainment will also require serious attention to raising completion rates, especially among America’s “New Majority”—students of color and those from low-income families.

In “Fixing America’s College Attainment Problems: It’s About More Than Affordability,” Ed Trust argues that any proposed new federal-state partnership aimed at making college more affordable can and should simultaneously leverage new investments to: 1) ensure that students are better prepared, and 2) prompt colleges and universities to prioritize student success, especially among underserved groups.

The need for action is clear. The United States, long number one in the world in the percentage of young adults with a college degree, has fallen to 11th among industrialized nations. And other nations are making much faster progress and are on track to surpass America in the number of college-educated young adults.

Among students who begin as first-time, full-time freshman at four-year institutions, less than 7 out of 10 White students (63 percent) finish in six years. The numbers are far worse for students of color: only 54 percent of Latino students graduate, followed by African American and Native students, where only 4 out of 10 students (41 percent) complete their education.

In short, our nation needs not just more access to college but more college graduates, and each level of government has a role in getting that job done.

“The federal government needs the states to rein in increases in the cost of college and to mobilize institutions of higher education to improve student success,” said Kati Haycock and co-author of the report. “But states need the federal government, too. Without federal dollars and incentives to make college more affordable and prioritize student outcomes, especially for those historically underserved, states will continue to maintain the status quo.”

To help ensure that any proposed federal-state partnership effectively addresses issues of affordability, completion, and inequities among groups of students, Ed Trust’s report outlines critical questions that policymakers, analysts, and advocates must consider when crafting and reviewing any proposals. These include:

  • Is the amount of federal money proportionate to the level of demand the partnership places on states and/or institutions? Are the eligibility requirements for states — including the financial ask — sensitive to state context?
  • Is the funding needed new money or pulled from existing higher education programs?
  • Will the way funding is structured exacerbate or ameliorate education spending differences between wealthier and poorer states and/or institutions?
  • What are the performance requirements, and what actions do they incentivize? What are the prescribed consequences for not meeting some or all of these requirements?

“America’s college attainment problem has many roots. Yes, new resources are key to fixing it. But resources alone aren’t enough. We have to change incentives up and down the line — from students and schools to colleges and states,” said José Luis Santos, Ph.D, and co-author of the report. “With this report, we offer a framework to help policymakers and advocates do just that.”