Resources & Publications

In Focus: State Postsecondary Policy

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.    



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.

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