Advisory Committee Report Suggests Refocusing Financial Aid to Improve Completion Rates

If the nation is to improve college completion rates, the federal government should reassess the structure of financial aid systems and programs for non-traditional students, according to a new report by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance.

The report, “Pathways To Success: Integrating Learning With Life and Work to Increase National College Completion,” focuses on ways to improve college completion rates among non-traditional students to help meet President Obama’s goal to have the world’s highest rate of college completion by 2020.  The report includes information and recommendations from a panel discussion of higher education experts held in Sept. 2011. The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (ACSFA) is charged with reporting annually to Congress on the condition of postsecondary access and persistence.

The federal government should direct more financial aid funding to nontraditional students, as well as needy students, ACSFA states in the report. Suggestions include the implementation of a new grant program for middle-income working students, maintaining the maximum Pell Grant award,  making Pell an option for employed students enrolled less than half-time, and allowing more flexibility in the use of professional judgment to disburse need-based aid.

The report also suggests broadening the concept of Ability-to-Benefit (ATB), a required test for those students to gain federal financial aid eligibility. Members of Congress, however, eliminated ATB from Pell Grant eligibility requirements in the 2012 budget to offset the cost of preserving the maximum Pell Grant award. 

ACSFA also notes that stricter guidelines under Return to Title IV (R2T4) and Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) could hurt nontraditional students by removing financial aid from students who would otherwise be eligible. Additionally, state authorization regulations could exacerbate the cost and administrative burden of compliance. 

The higher education community also needs a better understanding of the needs of nontraditional students. The report suggests an improved definition of “nontraditional student” and better data collection methods.

“Defining or labeling this population concisely is virtually impossible, given the considerable diversity of its demographic and socioeconomic characteristics,” the report states. “Categorized across the dimensions of age, marital status, family size and composition, level and type of employment, and educational preparation and goals, this population – often referred to as 21st century or contemporary students – consists of many subgroups, each with unique circumstances, educational needs, and goals.” 

The ACSFA report provides a number of recommendations for states and institutions, as well as the federal government, to improve outreach, access, counseling, data collection and affordability. 

“Achieving the 2020 goal among these students is an undertaking as daunting as the population is large and diverse,” the ACSFA report states. “First, higher education is not structured to serve this population adequately nor are most financial aid programs. Second, unlike that for recent high school graduates, nationally representative data that tracks nontraditional college enrollment and persistence do not exist.”