Will $9B Solve Student Success?

by: Trace Urdan | Blog |Sep 16th, 2021

Last week Democrats released details of their proposed $3.5 Trillion budget bill which includes approximately $111 Billion for higher education, the major portion of which is dedicated to a plan aimed at making community college effectively free in all 50 states. The plan is complex because of the wide variation in funding approaches and tuition levels across the country, but in broad terms the spending would allocate a median amount per student, and those states, like California, whose cost of attendance already falls below that level could reallocate funds to other higher education initiatives. Other provisions include a $500 increase to the current annual per student maximum Pell Grant of $6,495 and $1.5 Billion for tuition assistance grants for those attending minority-serving institutions.

The final large provision in the plan is a new $9.0 Billion program for state grants to support college retention and completion. While this number falls well short of the $62.0 Billion originally outlined in the president’s Families First plan on which it is based, it represents a sizable injection of federal spending into an area of focus that remains relatively nascent. In the proposed legislation, states and tribal colleges are invited to apply for grants describing specific targets for improvement in both student completion rates and in labor market outcomes. The bill grants the Secretary of Education the ability to allocate the funds with a particular focus given to how the proposed measures will positively impact students by race, ethnicity, income, disability status, remediation, and status as first-generation college students. The grants also stipulate that the states receiving the funds must contribute to the completion initiatives as well, and students may not be refused the benefits of the grants based on their immigration status.

The initiatives must be evidence-based according to definitions previously established for awarding grants in elementary and secondary education where federal interventions in practice are more established. They also may not spend more than 3% of the grant amount on administration. Acceptable initiatives may involve one or more of the following as stipulated in the draft bill’s language:

  • providing comprehensive academic, career, and student support services, including mentoring, advising, case management services, or career pathway navigation
  • assisting students in applying for and accessing direct support services, means- tested Federal benefit programs, or similar State, tribal, or local benefit programs
  • providing emergency financial aid grants to students for unexpected expenses and to meet basic needs
  • creating accelerated learning opportunities, including dual or concurrent enrollment programs and early college high school programs, and pathways to graduate and professional degree programs
  • reforming course scheduling and credit awarding policies
  • reforming remedial and developmental education
  • utilizing career pathways, including building capacity for career and technical education
  • improving transfer pathways between community colleges and four-year institutions

The dollar amount of the newly proposed spending is impressive and it’s hard to overstate its likely impact on institutional advising and student supports. Tyton Partners estimates the current amount spent annually on student advising and supports across all institutions is $30.2B, and the amount spent on specific services and technologies, both internal and external, is less than $1 billion annually.

Source: Tyton Partners

But while the spending being proposed cannot help but be impactful given its disproportionate size relative to current efforts, we believe a flexible approach to grant-making will be key to the dollars achieving maximum impact. Most public institutions likely to be the targets of these grants have versions of the initiatives described in the legislation already in place. “Drive Toward a Degree, 2021”, a longitudinal study of student success programs and practices authored by our colleague Cathy Shaw suggests that the principal obstacles to greater effectiveness has less to do with the need for new programs than ensuring that practices are being implemented with sufficient institutional capacity, coordination, and funding.

According to those currently at institutions engaged in this work, more prosaic efforts to relieve the caseloads of existing advisors, provide incremental funding to existing programs, and improve coordination across departments may represent a more obvious and meaningful way to improve outcomes than launching new initiatives at a statewide level.

Source: Drive Toward a Degree 2021: Overcoming Persistent Barriers to Student Success

The fate of this new spending is far from certain given the narrow Democratic control of the Senate and the expressed desire of swing vote West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to substantially reduce the overall size of the bill. However, the introduction of this new policy priority into the discussion of federal higher education spending is a meaningful development. Greater attention to student success in higher education is recognition of the changing profile of the typical college student and the need to provide greater supports to deliver to students and taxpayers the promised benefits of public higher education.

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