House Holds Hearing On Improving Access And Completion For Disadvantaged Students

By Erin Timmons, Communications Staff 

Yesterday, in a House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training hearing entitled “Improving College Access and Completion for Low-Income and First-Generation Students,” committee members heard from witnesses about programs states and institutions have in place to support low-income and first-generation college students.

In addition to need-based financial assistance the federal government currently provides in the form of Federal Pell Grants, there are a number of outreach and support services in place, like Gear Up and Upward Bound, which help students progress from middle school through college. These programs aim to improve access for low-income and first-generation students, but “while these efforts are well-intentioned, there’s a growing concern they are not reaching their goals,” said subcommittee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC).

“Low-income and first-generation students face substantial hurdles in applying to college and receiving financial aid they need,” agreed Ranking Subcommittee Member Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX). “Too often they enter unprepared and they struggle to persist in their studies and ultimately graduate,” he said.

Before turning the floor over to the witnesses for their thoughts on what should be done to improve access and completion for these students, Hinojosa named what he saw as two of the biggest obstacles to completion. The process of transferring between two- and four-year colleges “needs to be seamless so time and money are not wasted retaking coursework” and steps need to be taken to rectify the fact “that too many students enter postsecondary education unprepared for college-level coursework,” he said.

One of the key recommendations offered by Dr. Laura Perna, James S. Riepe Professor and executive director of Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, was that the federal government should be targeting students with the greatest financial need. "We must recognize and address the many ways that inequality is structured into the pathways into and through college," Perna said. Targeting this group will help to "level the playing field for educational opportunity," she added. Her other recommendations included: 

  • Assist students with navigating pathways to and through college with a focus on financial aid processes; 
  • Adapt programs to recognize the state regional and local context, as well as the characteristics of student served;
  • Leverage federal spending to serve greater numbers of students; and 
  • Encourage research that improves our understanding of best practices for college access and success programs.

"We need to know more about what components and services work, for which groups of students, and in which context," Perna said.

Other witnesses included Dr. Charles J. Alexander, associate vice provost for student diversity at the University of California in Los Angeles, Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy and Dr. Joe D. May, chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District. Cooper and May both testified that Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) should be a key focus for federal efforts to increase access and completion.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) voiced an interest in forming federal partnerships to help high school students transition to college, similar to Florida International University’s partnership with Miami-Dade County. Curbelo suggested the federal government look for ways to incentivize such partnerships.

Curbelo also broached the topic of burdensome regulations, asking witnesses whether they had “ideas as to what we can do to perhaps relieve the regulatory burden on our universities and colleges so that they have, in turn, more resources to dedicate to students-- specifically the students we're discussing here today, the ones that most need the help?” 

“I think we need to first of all consider what are we asking [schools to report], and whether or not it continues to be appropriate for the current context,” Cooper replied. “Many questions and many of the things required in these current reporting requirements are outdated-- we simply no longer need them.” 

For more on the administrative burden financial aid administrators grapple with, check out NASFAA’s 2015 Administrative Burden Survey report, released last week.


Publication Date: 5/1/2015

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