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The debate over President Biden’s proposal to forgive about $500 billion in student loan debt has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The administration is defending its plan against two legal challenges, with the court expected to make its decision by June as the debt of millions of borrowers hangs in the balance.
As intense — and as partisan — as the national dialogue around the issue has become, that the country has even arrived at such a moment signals a profound challenge within higher education: For far too many learners, college does not pay off.
Tuition costs are now about 40 times higher than when the first federal loan was introduced in 1958. About 45 million borrowers now collectively owe $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. As costs have risen, the United States has made dramatic progress in widening access to higher education. From the G.I. Bill to the Pell Grant, federal funding has been crucial to these efforts. But access, it turns out, is only part of the equation. Ensuring someone can pay for college means very little without backstopping those investments in college access with the support and scaffolding that help students graduate.
A startling number of learners never earn a degree. The federal government spends billions every year providing aid to 8 million students through the Pell Grant program, for instance, but just half of Pell recipients graduate within six years. About 40 percent of student loan borrowers do not graduate, and the default rate among those who have college debt but no degree is three times as high as those who graduate.
We must shift the federal role toward a focus on college completion and provide higher education with the funds it needs to invest in proven methods that help more students not only enroll in college but leave with a degree.
Colleges and universities are already working to make good use of the limited federal resources they have access to, providing students with crucial support that goes beyond the costs of tuition to address housing, transportation, food and childcare needs. Many colleges and universities use funding made available by the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program to help student-parents cover daycare expenses, for example.
Institutions are also using federal funds to bolster their academic support. Illinois Central College (ICC) is working to improve retention among its students, which account for a full quarter of the region’s graduating high-school seniors. Inspired by a 2013 study, which showed that student success coaching increases persistence and graduation rates, ICC redesigned its academic advising services and partnered with the nonprofit InsideTrack to create a direct coaching program. After just one year, the college saw an 18 percent increase in retention among those students who received coaching. The results were even stronger among African American and part-time learners, who saw a 33 percent increase and a 23 percent increase, respectively. The program was funded by a Title III Strengthening Institutions grant.
ICC is not the only institution to use federal funding to increase retention. Alabama’s Wallace State Community College used a U.S. Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant to create and sustain a coaching program, which has resulted in a 17 percent boost in retention. The continued success of the program led to a rare fourth year of grant funding.
To support Latinx and adult learners, Waubonese Community College utilized U.S. Department of Education Title V Developing Hispanic Serving Institutions grant funding to help boost student success for this student population through train-the-trainer certification.
Meanwhile, the City University of New York used $5 million, allocated through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, to greatly expand its mental health services. CUNY’s 18 campuses were able to increase the clinical staff of their health and wellness centers, purchase technology for providing counseling services online, and train and certify 120 counselors in providing teletherapy.
At Clark State College, a community college in Ohio, students were able to use emergency grants provided through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) to help cover basic needs like food, books and housing. The grants not only helped learners stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic but helped boost completion rates for students of color by 4 percent.
While these accomplishments are certainly worth celebrating, they also highlight an ongoing challenge for colleges and universities working to create and scale such initiatives: finding and maintaining funding. Many federal grants institutions receive are finite in nature. And as the immediate public health emergency of COVID-19 subsides, so do pandemic-era funding like the Cares Act and HEERF.
Higher education needs a more consistent and substantive flow of federal funding to back evidence-based practices that have the greatest impact on student outcomes. Currently, too few institutions have access to this kind of funding. Many colleges lack the bandwidth and capacity to pursue what little funding does exist, meaning institutions with the least resources are also the ones least likely to get the support they need. The federal government should not only provide more funding but address the inequitable way in which it is distributed.
With the help of federal funding, colleges and universities have made great strides in widening access to higher education and opening doors of opportunity to millions of students from increasingly diverse backgrounds. Institutions now need the same level of support to ensure higher education actually pays off — for individual learners and the country as a whole.
Yolanda Watson-Spiva is president of Complete College America.
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