Greater Investment Needed To Close Completion Gap, Panel Tells Appropriators

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff

More federal investment in programs like the Pell Grant Program, GEAR UP, and TRIO are needed to improve higher education access and completion, particularly among low-income and first-generation students, a panel of witnesses told a House subcommittee on Wednesday.

The witnesses were testifying at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education hearing on ways to close the higher education achievement gap, with a narrower focus on the most disenfranchised students. The witnesses represented all areas of higher education from community colleges to state agencies and workforce readiness groups, but their message was the same – student success is largely dependent on strong federal financial aid programs.

“Federal student aid should remain a priority to ensure that all Americans, regardless of their economic status, can achieve their higher education goals,” Brian Fitzgerald, CEO of the Business-Higher Education Forum, said.  

In particular, Fitzgerald said the Pell Grant should continue to be funded at the FY2015 level and that the government should work to maintain maximum award levels. “Without a strong Pell Grant Program, virtually nothing we are talking about will work,” he said, adding that the program and other Title IV aid programs play an important role in helping first-generation and low-income students achieve their higher education goals. 

When asked about the year-round Pell Grant, LaGuardia Community College President Gail Mellow said that the lack of financial resources in the summer can slow down the progress of community college students. NASFAA in 2014 signed on to a bill from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) that would reinstate the year-round Pell Grant. 

Witnesses also encouraged the committee to increase funding for the GEAR UP and TRIO programs, which they said were two of the most cost-effective federal financial aid programs.

However, the need is greater than the current funding allows and more students could be reached with more funding from the federal government, said Aaron Thompson, executive vice president and chief academic officer of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

Benjamin Castleman, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, discussed how innovative technologies can help combat “summer melt,” which occurs during the time between a student’s senior year of high school and enrollment in college. 

Castleman has worked on programs that use text messaging to remind students to complete the necessary enrollment and financial aid forms. The text messages cost less than $10 per student but increase the share of students who ultimately enroll by 10 percent, he said, adding that the biggest impact is seen among low-income students. 

Castleman encouraged the committee to look into funding these kinds of innovative technologies to help students and families navigate the complex decisions related to higher education, such as financial aid renewal and loan counseling.


Publication Date: 3/19/2015

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