Resources & Publications

In Focus: Federal Postsecondary Policy

Jan 22, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

President Obama’s Two-Generation Strategy: Right Package, Right Time

President’s Obama’s domestic priorities outlined in Tuesday’s State of the Union address encompass a thoughtful and timely package—not simply a laundry list—to help poor and low-income families lift themselves into the middle class.  CLASP has long advocated for these priorities and strategies because we think that, taken together, they support families and add up to a far greater impact together than any of them could have alone.  We are delighted to see the president’s approach reflects this same judgment.

The president’s proposals on community college, child care, paid leave, and tax credits embrace a two-generation approach to addressing poverty that recognizes the importance of supporting both parents and children. Two-generation policies reflect strong research findings that the well-being of parents is inextricably linked to children’s social-emotional, physical, and economic well-being. At the same time, parents’ ability to succeed in school and the workplace is substantially affected by how well their children are doing. Because more than 70 percent of poor children live in families with at least one worker, it is essential that we address the needs of both children and their parents in thinking about the workplace as well as the home.  And 26% of community college students are parents–a policy opportunity for helping both generations that CLASP focused on in a panel discussion at a public forum last summer featuring experts and practitioners from the worlds of postsecondary education and early care and education. 

CLASP believes the president’s focus on the following initiatives is directly responsive to the needs of today’s struggling families:

  • Free community college. In describing his plan for community college, President Obama said, “Forty percent of our college students choose community college. Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt.”   Between 2008 and 2012, the proportion of college students who had low incomes rose dramatically, from 40 percent of undergraduate students with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level in 2008, to 51 percent in 2012. Without income to cover basic living expenses, these students will most likely have to work more to cover direct and indirect college costs, increasing time to degree completion.  The president’s plan to pay for community college tuition would help cover the overall cost of attendance, allowing low-income students to use some of their Pell grants to pay for books, transportation, and living expenses.
  • Child Care.  As President Obama forcefully stated, “It’s not a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have. It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.” When families are able to access quality child care, children are better prepared for success in life and parents are more likely to succeed on the job as they gain peace of mind from knowing their child is well cared for and thriving. Together, these two goals are critical to our nation’s economic competitiveness now and in the future. Moreover, bipartisan support late last year for the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant underscores that this issue has traction.
  • Paid Leave.  Millions of Americans are currently losing wages and jobs in order to care for their families and their health.  Almost all (95 percent) workers in the lowest 25 percent of wage earners have no paid family leave, and 70 percent of these same workers have no access to earned sick days. The Administration’s call for Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, federal earned sick days legislation, and proposed investments in state-level paid family and medical leave programs demonstrate a keen awareness of working families’ needs. In addition to helping families, these actions will create a more effective workforce—improving the bottom lines of businesses and driving economic growth.
  • Tax reform. In another strong signal in support of working families, President Obama stated the importance of “helping folks afford child care, college, health care, a home, retirement [by] lowering the taxes of working families, and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.” His strategy? Strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, both of which been shown to effectively help lift families out of poverty, as well as expanding the American Opportunity Tax Credit for higher education costs, the tax credit for families paying for child care, and creating a new credit to help two-earner families with work expenses.

We applaud this strategic vision that offers a ladder up to the middle class for hard-working poor and low-income families by addressing the needs of both children and their parents.  Achieving the American dream by helping struggling hard-working families improve their skills, take care of their children, and better their and their children’s prospects ought to be something we can all agree on.  It’s the right package at the right time.







Jan 12, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

The Promise of College: America’s Next Educational Milestone

By Anna Cielinski and Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield

Last week, President Obama proposed making two years of community college free. The plan, called America’s College Promise, would create a new federal-state partnership to eliminate tuition for “responsible” students—those who attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program. CLASP commends the Administration for placing college access and completion at the top of its agenda. The president’s proposal is an improvement on other programs that are designed to offer “free” community college tuition, because this new proposal would particularly benefit non-traditional students, including those who are older and those who attend college part-time. America’s College Promise would be especially valuable to non-traditional students because its funds could be used to help offset living expenses, which often are the greatest barriers for students who attend relatively low-tuition community colleges. The Administration estimates as many as 9 million students will benefit.

The proposal would cover both academic and occupational programs at community colleges, provided that the programs are “high quality.” The Administration characterizes high-quality academic programs as those that would fully transfer to a four-year college or university, while high-quality occupational programs would have high graduation rates and lead to in-demand credentials. In addition, according to the Administration, the funding would not supplant current Pell Grants to low-income students, but instead would serve as a “first dollar” contribution that pays for tuition and fees up-front, leaving any remaining Pell Grant funds to cover living expenses. This is a significant improvement over the existing plans in Tennessee and Chicago, which offer “last dollar” funding that does not benefit Pell Grant recipients whose Pell grant covers all or most tuition and fees. Living expenses are often the largest out-of-pocket expense for low-income students, and can be a major roadblock to attending college at all, or can lead to increased work hours or part-time attendance, both of which can have negative impacts on persistence and completion.    

The proposal also seeks to increase state investments in community colleges by requiring a state contribution to the effort. In states that choose to participate, federal funding will cover 75 percent of the average tuition and fees for community college, with states covering the remaining 25 percent in funding. By sending a clear message that community college can be “free,” this plan could expand awareness about the full array of financial supports available, which in turn could encourage more individuals to consider postsecondary education or job training who wouldn’t otherwise have thought that it was possible. 

The president’s plan is also an improvement because it includes part-time and older students. Part-time attendance is driven by factors including work and family responsibilities. Tuition assistance programs that are only available for full-time students fail to help the majority of community college students. In 2012, 59 percent of community college students attended part-time. However, we are disappointed that the Administration’s plan does not go far enough to include individuals who attend less than half-time, as studies have shown that most students attending less-than-half-time are doing so temporarily due to family demands or changes in work and school schedules. We commend the Administration’s proposal for including those who President Obama calls the “young at heart”—students of all ages, not only those who have recently graduated from high school. With 4 in 10 undergraduate students in 2014 age 25 or older, programs that restrict eligibility to recent high school graduates fall short in expanding access to today’s community college students.   

Overall, the president’s proposal takes a crucial step in the right direction. As with the movement a century ago for all students to complete high school, this new proposal has the potential to dramatically increase the expectation of postsecondary education or job training for all Americans, not just those who can afford tuition.  We look forward to hearing more about the president’s plan at the State of the Union address and reviewing the details in his budget request to Congress in February. We strongly encourage Congress to consider seriously the value of these investments.

Dec 19, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Rating Colleges, Improving Outcomes

By Anna Cielinski

Today, the U.S. Department of Education released a draft framework for President Obama’s proposed college ratings system, previously known as the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS). The purpose of the ratings system is threefold: 1) to provide better information to students and families about access, affordability, and outcomes, 2) to generate reliable, useful data that policymakers and the public can use to hold institutes of higher education accountable, and 3) to help colleges and universities measure, benchmark, and better address the principles of access, affordability, and outcomes.

CLASP has made a number of recommendations to the Department over the last year, in the form of written comments, testimony, a briefing paper on implementing a system that empowers students while avoiding unintended consequences, and a briefing paper on the importance presenting workforce outcomes.  We are pleased to see some of our recommendations addressed in the draft framework.

First, we are gratified that the Department plans to include workforce outcomes, like employment and earnings, in the ratings system.  Students, especially low-income students, go to school to improve their earnings potential.  A ratings system without workforce outcomes would be sorely insufficient. We especially applaud the Department because including workforce outcomes will be no easy task. The ratings systems will need to address a myriad of issues, including  who is covered by the metric (all students or only graduates), timeframe of the measurements (e.g., one, five, or ten years out), and not creating disincentives to enroll low-income or underprepared students who may have uncertain paths to economic success. 

Second, we appreciate the attention to creating fair comparison groups of institutions that take into account differences in institutional characteristics and missions.  The strategy of grouping colleges and universities by predominantly two- and four-year institutions is a good start, and the framework rightly identifies additional characteristics for consideration like program mix and admissions selectivity.   

One element missing from the framework, however, is disaggregating workforce outcomes by program of study.  Many low-income and non-traditional students have very few institutions to choose from; they often stay close to home to live with their parents, or they have families of their own and cannot uproot to attend a far-away college.  Yet, students do have the important choice of program of study, which often drives employment and earnings outcomes as much as the institution they select. Facilitating more informed choices of programs of study through better information on earnings, along with the other measures like completion, holds the promise of helping low-income, non-traditional students and their families move out of poverty.

In the coming weeks, CLASP will complete a full analysis of the Administration’s draft framework, and we look forward to working with the Department to improve the rankings system.    



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