Right- and Left-Leaning Think Tanks Unite to Address College Completion

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

In an effort to open a bipartisan dialogue on the issue of college completion, center-left-leaning think tank Third Way and right-leaning think tank the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) brought experts from a variety of higher education groups, as well as policymakers on both sides of the aisle, together on Thursday to discuss the barriers students face to earning degrees.

In a joint effort, the think tanks enlisted these experts to write a series of articles on the many factors that come into play when looking at college completion, which the authors discussed at length yesterday during a series of panels.

Sarah Turner, professor and former chair of the economics department at the University of Virginia (UVA), explained that while lagging college completion rates are not a new challenge, the issue is at the forefront of the discussion on higher education reform because it is making an increasingly greater impact on students' financial health. For example, Turner writes in her piece that "compared to a worker with no more than a high school degree, the advantage in earnings for a college graduate has increased from about 46 percent in 1973 to about 82 percent in 2016; those with ‘some college' without a degree earn only slightly more than high school graduates."

Turner's suggestions for policymakers included mandating that students are provided with information on institutions' graduation rates  — in the form of "customized, personalized, and relevant data" — citing that 600,000 students are enrolled at institutions with graduation rates of less than 20 percent. She also emphasized that lawmakers should "address poor performance" at institutions, such as by revoking their eligibility for receiving federal funds, which has proven to be a challenge for state schools.

"State policymakers have a particular responsibility for oversight in the public sector because market forces will not generate closure. Additionally, the short-term costs of restructuring struggling institutions often limit states' capacity to do so, even though the long-term gains from restructuring can be sizable," she wrote.

In another panel, the Education Writers Association's (EWA) Kim Clark analyzed a variety of programs that institutions had implemented to increase their completion rates and found that while they have helped many students graduate, many are not scalable. For example, the American Talent Initiative, an alliance of colleges and universities aiming to enroll more low-income students in higher education, has a goal of enrolling 50,000 undergraduates by 2025 — which is just 2 percent of all undergraduates, Clark emphasized.

She also said that policymakers must recognize that there is not a single solution to raising low college completion rates and that different methods will work better for different institutions, which she detailed in her article.

In addition, Mesmin Destin, an associate professor and fellow of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, argued there are psychological factors that policymakers and institutions can address that inhibit students from accessing and completing college. In his paper, Destin wrote that institutions can reframe "points of psychological friction," such as financial aid counseling, to convey to a student that their institution supports them, which can, in turn, push the student to graduate. Destin suggested, for example, that institutions show a clear connection between taking out loans and earning enough money to repay those funds during financial aid counseling, which can inspire a student to earn a credential.       

The panel also included a discussion on factors that come into play before a student enters college. Matt Chingos from the Urban Institute in his article argued that "academic preparedness" plays a big role in whether students graduate and recommended that policymakers implement measures such as mandating more rigorous coursework at the high school level to teach students the skills they need to perform well in college courses.

The think tanks also invited current and former policymakers on both sides of the aisle to discuss what is being done and what can be done to address low college completion rates, such as through the current and ongoing process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA). James Bergeron, president of the National Council of Higher Education Resources (NCHER) and former director of Education and Human Services Policy for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said that the conversation around the HEA this time around has shifted to include completion rates in addition to increasing college access, remarking that "we never had these [discussions] before when I was up there."

Amy Jones, the current director of Education and Human Services Policy on the committee attributed this shift to the new population of learners entering higher education. Jones also emphasized a new need to look at programmatic data when addressing college completion, since this new demographic of students, she argued, are more focused on program outcomes. The committee's bill — the PROSPER Act — proposed to replace cohort default rates (CDR) as a metric to determine an institution's eligibility for federal aid with program-based repayment rates.

Kara Marchione, the education policy director for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP), which has also been tasked with drafting a bill to reauthorize the HEA, said that while the federal government must hold institutions accountable for their completion rates, there is a balance to be struck between penalizing schools for poor outcomes and stifling schools with innovative approaches.

"We have to make sure we're not swinging the pendulum too far," she said. "We need to be looking where the tipping point is."

She argued that there are institutions making strides in raising competition rates and that Congress needs to "see what they are doing and find ways to support them." The question arises, she said, of how Congress should incentivize these and other schools.  

Jones said that the goal is to make the bill "flexible enough" so that schools can still implement new policies under the legislation and "don't have to wait for [Congress]" to draft a new bill in 10 years. She argued that the current higher education system looks very different than the one that will exist once the bill is reauthorized.  

Denise Forte, senior fellow at The Century Foundation and former staff director on the House committee emphasized that while college completion rates are a bipartisan issue, there has not been an agreement on both sides because of how complex the issue is and that there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution. Jones agreed that the issue is "high stakes," and Marchione said that while drafting policy is the difficult part, "the good news is that conversation is happening."


Publication Date: 6/1/2018

Joelle F | 6/1/2018 9:9:33 AM

James, apologies for this oversight. We've since corrected that error. It now reads "citing that 600,000 students are enrolled at institutions with graduation rates of less than 20 percent." -NASFAA Staff

James C | 6/1/2018 8:36:34 AM

This makes no sense. 600,000 postsecondary institutions?

"citing that 600,000 postsecondary institutions have graduation rates of less than 20 percent."

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