Resources & Publications

In Focus: State Postsecondary Policy

May 29, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

Bipartisan House Bill Would Improve Postsecondary Data System, Help Low-Income and Underprepared Students Make Better Decisions

By Anna Cielinski

Last week, a bipartisan group of House members introduced H.R. 2518, the “Student Right to Know Before You Go” Act of 2015. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), would provide students, families, and policymakers much-needed information to improve postsecondary education decisions. H.R. 2518 is the House companion to S. 1195, a bipartisan Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). If enacted, it would be a major step toward an improved federal postsecondary data system that could assist low-income and underprepared students.

The bill would provide an exemption from the ban on a student unit record system and leverage the existing Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to provide more accurate and complete data on student retention, transfer, graduation, and employment outcomes at all levels of postsecondary enrollment. As a member of the PostsecData Collaborative, CLASP strongly believes students should have access to this information when making postsecondary education decisions.

As an advocate for low-income people, CLASP is pleased that much of the data would be disaggregated by Pell Grant status. This will help policymakers and researchers understand how low-income students are faring in postsecondary education, allowing them to target policy changes toward performance or outcome gaps between Pell and non-Pell recipients.

The bill also requires median annual earnings and employment metrics—disaggregated by program of study, credential received, institution, and state of employment—to be reported 2, 6, and 15 years after completion. CLASP has strongly supported responsible use of employment and earnings data while cautioning against unintended disincentives for institutions to enroll low-income and underprepared students.

We are especially pleased that the bill would provide for employment and earnings data at the program-of-study level. Low-income and underprepared students who are place-bound may have limited choices of institutions, but they can choose among many programs of study. This data would help students select programs based on proven earning potential.

While there is much to support in the bill, improvements could be made. For example, it appears that employment and earnings data would not be disaggregated by Pell Grant status under the bill as drafted. Policymakers may be concerned that further disaggregation from the program-of-study level could produce numbers of students too low to report for privacy reasons. That problem could be solved by giving the Secretary of Education authority to combine five years of students into one cohort, a practice already employed by state-run College Measures consumer information websites. CLASP looks forward to working with Congress to improve this important legislation.

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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