Resources & Publications

In Focus: State Postsecondary Policy

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.    

 

 

Mar 20, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Amid Rising College Costs, State Funding for Need-Based Aid is Too Low

By Manuela Ekowo and Katherine Saunders

The rising cost of college is at the forefront of the higher education debate. College costs are rising four times faster than family income, putting a postsecondary education further out of reach for low-income students.

Low-income students are often the first in their family to attend college and are at higher risk of dropping out because of unmet need—the gap between college costs and what students can afford to pay on their own and/or with aid that does not need to be repaid. One option available to address this gap is state need-based aid, which is awarded based on income and other financial factors (as opposed to academic performance). However, a recent report shows that, despite recent modest increases, state funding for such programs is still too low to measurably improve college access and success for low-income students.

Despite the proven success of need-based aid in reducing students’ financial burdens, investments to date have been far too small.  In 2012-13, the average full-time community college student still had more than $6,000 in unmet need. According to the most recent report from the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs (NASSGAP), in 2011-12, the 50 states and District of Columbia spent a total of $6.8 billion on need-based grant aid for college students. While this is a 6 percent increase from the previous year, it averages out to only $482 per enrolled undergraduate student—less than one-fifth of what the federal government spent on Pell Grants, the primary federal grant program to help millions of low-income students access postsecondary education. California, New York, and Texas led all states with the amount of need-based undergraduate grant aid awarded to students in 2011-12.

All the available data shows that investing in an individual’s education and training provides states with a more skilled and educated workforce and improves states’ economies in both the short and long term. In a joint study of all 50 states with the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), CLASP describes just how many workers need better skills and wages to become self-sufficient and promote economic growth in their state. This is consistent with research by the Economic Policy Institute, which finds that by increasing access to higher education, states will “expand economic opportunity and…do more to strengthen the overall state economy than anything else a state government can do.”

Many states are holding off on new investments until they have fully recovered from the recession, but students cannot afford to wait for the postsecondary education they need to secure their future. Need-based financial aid should continue to be a priority for states; it is a win for students and for state economies.

Mar 11, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Higher Education is a Top Priority in President Obama’s FY 2015 Budget

by Katherine Saunders and Marcie Foster

Last Tuesday, President Obama released a FY 2015 budget proposal that prioritizes education and reaffirms a commitment to making college affordable and improving college completion rates.

This year’s budget request builds on previous actions by the Administration to make college affordable and increase the proportion of Americans with a postsecondary credential. The budget makes key investments in existing programs and proposes new programs that would give states and institutions bigger, more defined roles in supporting access and success for low-income and moderate-income students.  

The President maintains his commitment to existing programs that serve as the bedrock of student financial aid. The budget calls for an increase in the maximum Pell Grant to $5,830 for the 2015-2016 academic year and takes steps to shore up the program’s funding gap in future years by reforming the Perkins Loan program. These funds would ensure Pell grants remain available to nearly 9 million low- and moderate-income students.

Additionally, the budget calls on Congress to pass legislation that would make federal financial aid available to students without a high school diploma or equivalency who are enrolled in eligible career pathways programs. This critical provision, which CLASP strongly supports, would strengthen adult career pathway bridge programs and co-enrollment approaches that help low-income, low-skilled adults and out-of-school youth. Right now, students enrolled in these programs are not eligible to receive a single dollar of federal financial assistance (including student loans) for their college coursework.

The Budget also seeks to reform campus-based aid programs, such as federal work-study. The request would revise current allocation formulas, disbursing funds to institutions based on the enrollment and graduation of Pell-eligible students rather than historical funding levels. Two new investments in the President’s budget request include the College Opportunity and Graduation Bonus and the State Higher Education Performance Fund. The College Opportunity and Graduation Bonus would include $7 billion in mandatory funding over 10 years to reward colleges that successfully enroll and graduate a significant number of low- and moderate-income students “on time” (not defined in the budget request). Under this new program, annual grants would be given to eligible institutions based on their number of on-time Pell graduates multiplied by a tiered bonus amount per student ($1,000 for each Pell graduate at a four-year institution, $700 at two-year institutions, and $350 at less-than-2-year institutions).

Bonus funds would be used by institutions to improve college access and success for low-income students through such activities as awarding need-based aid, enhancing supportive services, and pursuing acceleration strategies.  The State Higher Education Performance Fund proposes $4 billion in four-year competitive grants to encourage and support systemic efforts to improve college attainment and affordability, especially for low-income students. Grantees would implement performance-based policy and funding reforms that encourage degree attainment and affordability. States would be required to match their federal grants dollar for dollar, for a total investment of $8 billion over four years. 

Finally, the budget requests the permanent extension of the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), which provides financial assistance to students or to taxpayers whose children are attending college (see CLASP proposal to make the AOTC work better for low- and moderate-income students). The request also ends the taxation of Pell grants.

Overall, the budget reflects a continued commitment to low-income students and takes steps to strengthen the role of institutions and states in supporting student success. Collectively, the proposed reforms seek to increase access to college and employment opportunities by making postsecondary education more affordable and better targeting resources to institutions that demonstrate success in access, affordability, and completion.  As Congress prepares its budget and higher education funding levels for the upcoming fiscal year, it should consider these reforms a strong foundation for improving college affordability and improving the skills of America’s workforce.

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