Alexander: Federal Policies Should Encourage Students to Complete College on Time, Encourage Colleges to Help Students Finish

Chairs 8th hearing this Congress on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

Posted on August 5, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 5 – U.S. Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said federal aid policies should encourage students to make progress in college and complete on time, and higher education policies should help colleges and universities help their students finish their degree or certificate.

“Few can afford to be stuck with debt and no degree, but this is what’s happening to far too many college students,” Alexander said. “We need to find a way to encourage our over 6,000 higher-education institutions to prioritize and encourage student success without throwing a big, wet blanket of a federal mandate that smothers universities—a mandate that might work at Austin Peay but might not work at the University of Maryland, that might be good at Yeshiva but not at Harvard.”

Today’s hearing on student success and completion was the committee’s eighth hearing this Congress in its work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

The chairman’s prepared remarks follow:

Today’s hearing is really about finding out if there is a way for the federal government to help more students finish college. Few can afford to be stuck with debt and no degree, but this is what’s happening to far too many college students.

Federal aid programs are designed to help people working to earn a degree or a certificate, mostly in one-, two-, or four-year programs.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, only 55% of these students complete a degree or certificate within six years. 

The problem is even worse for low-income students: 8.6 million low-income students received Pell Grants from the federal government last year. Department of Education data finds only 45% of these students achieve a degree or certificate within six years.

There are 7 million borrowers in default on their federal student loans, and the Department of Education says that borrowers are three times more likely to be in this situation if did not finish any degree or credential.

We know that students who do not finish their program are less likely to benefit with a better job or salary.

So I’d like to briefly address today:

  • Why are so many American college students leaving before they graduate?
  • And what role can the federal government play in:
    • Encouraging students—particularly those receiving Pell Grants and other federal financial aid—to finish what they’ve started?
    • Encouraging colleges and universities to help their students make progress and graduate?

What seems to make students successful and what indicators suggest they are more likely to drop out?

Part-time enrollment and slow progress: Research shows that students with a full-time course load, meaning 15 credits per semester, who consistently enroll full-time are most likely to graduate. However, a 2013 survey of institutions showed, the majority of so-called full-time college students are not taking the credits needed to finish in four years for a bachelor’s or in two years for an associates degree.

For students who are going full or part-time, not taking a break from school increases the likelihood of completion by 43 percent.

Inadequate high school education: Students who need to take remedial courses to catch up to their peers in college face one of the biggest barriers to timely graduation. According to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College, most remedial students never even get past remediation.

Financial difficulties: Students from low-income backgrounds face financial pressures during college that make them more likely to drop out.

What role can the government play in encouraging graduation?

Senator Bennet (D-Colo.) and I have a proposal to simplify the dreaded 108-question FAFSA to a simple postcard of about two questions. We understand that this will remove an obstacle that each year discourages about 2 million students from applying for federal financial aid. And for some, it discourages reapplying for aid to continue in their studies.

Many or even most of the students who are eligible but not applying and enrolling in college are low-income students who would be the first in their family to attend college. Some are adults already in the workforce. Many of the students may continue working or have to get a job while they attend school.

Some institutions, including some of the ones we have represented here today, have found ways to provide students with needed support to progress through their classes and reach their ultimate goal – a degree or credential.

Two years ago, Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, testified in front of this committee about success it has had with remedial education.

Half of Austin Peay students need to take remedial courses once they are enrolled. The university redesigned their remedial education so that students who lack some skills in mathematics, writing, or reading enroll in credit-bearing college courses, with additional required workshops to help them catch up.

Before using this approach, only 10% of their remedial math students ever completed a college level math class—now 70% do. Those students could never get their degree without passing that college level math.  

Despite the good work of some institutions, today federal aid does not encourage students to complete their degree as quickly as they can, which ideally is on time.

First, maximum Pell is often awarded to a student who’s really not attending full-time: For example, students get their full Pell grant amount if they take 24 credits in a year, but a student generally must take 30 credits a year to graduate on-time.

Second, federal aid progress requirements seem to lack teeth: Students must meet a “satisfactory academic progress” standard to remain eligible. This definition is set by institutions with broad requirements from federal regulations, including a minimum grade point average and passing a minimum percentage of credits successfully.

These requirements may not require enough focused progression through a degree or certificate program and the timing of the evaluation of progress can be too late for students to change course.  

Third, federal aid today can be used to subsidize studies unfocused toward the degree: For example, a student can use their Pell grant to take 90 credits for a 60 credit associates degree.

The longer students take, the less likely they are to finish, taking classes that get students off course from their goal, which could be detrimental to completion.

Of course, some students may want to take courses that don’t help them meet requirements for graduation —but whether federal aid should be allowed to be used for that is a question before the committee.

Federal policy has emphasized access rather than completion, and we recognize that college students are adults who have the autonomy and responsibility for making decisions for themselves.

So I think we need to find a way to encourage our over 6,000 institutions to prioritize and encourage student success without throwing a big, wet blanket of a federal mandate that smothers universities—a mandate that might work at Austin Peay but might not work at the University of Maryland, that might be good at Yeshiva but not at Harvard.

I look forward to hearing a variety of successful strategies that are working or showing promise from our panel today.

I believe the solutions that we hear will note that there is no one-size fits all solution to improving student success. 

I am particularly interested in hearing how federal policies may hinder creative solutions or could better promote student progression toward on-time completion, saving the student money and allowing them to graduate with less debt.

 

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