Funds for College Completion Are Essential for Educational Equity
Recent reports indicate that negotiations for the congressional reconciliation bill, the Build Back Better Act, are nearing completion. The draft bill includes several key measures to make the U.S. educational system more equitable, including proposals to substantially increase the Pell Grant, make a down payment on the promise of debt-free college via a federal-state partnership, and boost federal support for historically black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities. The Education Trust is highly supportive of those proposals and views them as essential to increasing equitable access to higher education.
While college access is important, it’s not sufficient on its own: Getting in the door is just a student’s first step to graduation, and many students get waylaid by work, family, or financial roadblocks along the way. An important provision in the Build Back Better Act aims to remedy that through a retention and completion grant program that would give money to states to implement evidenced-based student success programs to ensure that more students get to and through college. This program must remain in the Build Back Better Act.
This money would help scale up wraparound support programs that target some of the common barriers and hidden costs of attending college that can deter students of color and students from low-income backgrounds — many of whom attended high schools that offered few opportunities to engage in college-level work; or are enrolled part time; and/or are first-generation students, working 30+ hours a week to afford school — from finishing. It would support the creation of student success programs with comprehensive supports that include, but are not limited to, academic and career counseling services that ensure students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are advised through adequate academic, transfer, and career pathways to help them successfully matriculate, graduate, and enter the workforce. Many students face financial hurdles that force them to cut their educational journey short; the retention and completion grants could be used to give small emergency financial aid grants to students, which, for some, might make the difference between graduating and not graduating. We know that positive higher education outcomes benefit not just students, but society at large.
These types of interventions are necessary to close equity gaps in higher education. As an Ed Trust report, Segregation Forever?, showed, Black and Latino students are woefully underrepresented at public flagship universities — not one has a student body that matches the demographic profile of the state in which it is located. Furthermore, Black and Latino students in states that contain the highest proportions of Black and Latino students have double-digit completion gaps when compared to their White peers. And the community colleges, HBCUs, and MSIs that are disproportionately educating Black and Latino students are also the ones most likely to lack the financial resources to fund programs that increase the chances students complete college once they start. That reality makes investing in evidence-based student success programs even more crucial.
How do we know these programs pay off for students and taxpayers? The results are in. Existing student success programs — such as CUNY ASAP in New York, Project Quest in San Antonio, and One Million Degrees in Chicago — have increased completion of college courses, acquisition of college credits, and/or earnings after graduation. And these programs have adapted and been replicated with the same success elsewhere. The ASAP initiative doubled associate degree graduation rates at the at the City University of New York; and when that program was piloted at three community colleges in Ohio, their graduation rates doubled too. Programs like ASAP could be expanded nationwide with funding from the Build Back Better Act.
As the reconciliation bill moves forward, congressional lawmakers must ensure the retention and completion grant program remains a part of the package. These student success programs are an necessary piece of the puzzle to solve the equity challenges facing our students.