College Non-Completion Focus of House Subcommittee Hearing

By Megan Walter, Policy and Federal Relations Staff

The House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment held a hearing yesterday on the effects of college non-completion, focusing on the costs involved for students and how to improve outcomes for students.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), opened the hearing by talking about the previous work the committee has done to improve the lives of students, as well as making clear that “as this committee continues its work to expand college access, we must also ensure that today's students have the support they need to complete college and enjoy the life changing benefits of a college degree.” Davis reiterated this hearing’s importance by saying, “This really is a matter of national importance. Congress has a responsibility to ensure that today's college students have the support they need to make it to graduation day, otherwise we will continue to leave far too many students without a degree, struggling with student loans that they cannot repay.”

Rep. Smucker (R-PA), focused on the costs of non-completion to students in his opening remarks, citing a study that found that students who drop out before attaining a degree have worse financial outcomes than those who never pursued a secondary education in the first place. Smucker also talked about the rising costs of college, and the burden of student loan debt, saying that colleges need to have more of a share in the risk of student non-completion and a higher stake in their student’s success. He closed his remarks by reminding the committee and witness panel, that “getting students to the starting line is not enough, we must encourage them to complete a program, and earn that credential or degree.”

The witness panel consisted of Susan Dynarski, a professor from the University of Michigan; David Rudd, president of the University of Memphis; Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College; and Kyle Ethelbah, director of federal TRIO programs at the University of Utah.

Dynarski gave her testimony first, focusing on statistics surrounding college non-completers. She said that most of the student loan defaults today are by non-competitors. She also drew attention to the enrollment patterns in the United States, saying that while “college enrollment is on the rise, graduation rates are down and that is because nearly half of all college students drop out without earning a degree.”  She continued, saying that “Department of Education data show a trend of increased enrollment among Black and Latino students and unless we increase completion rates for these and other disadvantaged students, we’re looking at a sharp decrease in the education of our population.” Dynarski also mentioned the very low completion rates from for-profit colleges, saying that while affordability is important, school quality matters too, and that an affordable school is worthless, or even harmful, if it does not supply a quality education.

Rudd spoke about the efforts his institution has made to improve student success and completion. Rudd pointed out that his institution has a significant population of male, African American students, who have historically struggled with poor retention rates. Rudd went on to say that to combat the poor rates, they launched a scholarship program that provides targeted scholarship dollars and mentor services for those students. As a result of the program, six-year graduation rates have more than doubled for this population, to just over 58%. Rudd concluded his remarks by identifying the need for “support, both in financial and in psychosocial ways” for students.

As a community college president, Eddinger focused on adult learners in her testimony. She said that they are becoming the majority population at community colleges and, with downward trends of high school graduates, there is an imminent need to focus on educating our current adult populations. She continued on to talk about the different challenges this population has compared to the traditionally defined eighteen-year-old freshman student. Eddinger described the first challenge as financial and social, saying that college is not always at the center of adult learners’ lives because pressures of basic needs can derail these students. The second challenge mentioned was academic preparation, about which Eddinger cited that 90% of entering community college students need developmental math, and 45% are below college level English. The third challenge “is to map the shortest pathway to employment, which requires industry aligned curriculum, apprenticeships, and internships from our business partners,” Eddinger said, and lastly, the final challenge for adult students is an institutional policy related one—to shift from the traditional college paradigm to retain and graduate adult learners.

Born and raised on a Native American reservation, Ethelbah talked about his own experiences and struggles navigating the college environment and how TRIO programs and services helped him succeed. Ethelbah said that as a current director of TRIO programs, he draws upon his own experiences to make sure that the federal dollars his team manages are providing robust, reputable and impactful programs.

Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-PA) steered the conversation towards the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, asking Rudd about the Pell Grant bonus proposal that was included in the PROSPER Act last session. Smucker asked if Rudd believed that a Pell Grant bonus to students who complete 30 credit hours each award year would be an effective policy tool to increase on-time graduation rates. Rudd responded that he did think it could be, and drawing upon his own experiences he said that he’s “found that it’s small amounts of money that make a big difference in completion rates.”

Smucker continued on topics important to reauthorization, asking Ethelbah about the effects of filling out the FAFSA on the populations that he works with and in particular, what would simplifying the form mean to low income students and their families. Ethelbah responded that he believes “The FAFSA in general has gotten a lot easier to maneuver but there still is a lot of room for improvement, and simplifying is definitely a good step.” Ethelbah continued, though, to talk about the verification process, saying “the process for verification has become the other bureaucratic component that impedes students from being able to move forward and achieve an education.”

Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) spoke about entrance and exit counseling, stating that he believes they are ineffective, and asked Rudd what recommendations he has to improve the financial counseling process. While Rudd agreed that more counseling assistance is “needed on that front” for students, they’ve discovered, “it's not just advising about financial aid upfront, but about what happens when students retake courses, or take courses not necessary for their major, and end up using up their Pell or loan amounts, that's what effects non-completion.”

Related to Rudd’s response and having to retake courses, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) asked Eddinger what she believes are best practices for transfer students to avoid the risks of non-completion. Eddinger responded by saying that she believes, “community colleges have been the stepchild of the educational pathway” and said that when it comes to the acceptance of credits by other institutions, it can be random and subjective and that “there needs to be a good process of alignment to prohibit our students from needing to repeat courses.” Rudd chimed in, saying that clear articulation agreements would solve many of these problems.

Davis closed the hearing by remarking that “it's important that we make sure that people complete, because when they do, we all win and when that doesn't happen, we know that the consequences can be great, not just for the individual, but for generations of that individual's family, and our community as a whole.”


Publication Date: 5/10/2019

James C | 5/10/2019 10:0:22 AM

Although community colleges serve a very important purpose, greater scrutiny should be focused on their completion rates. They often admit far more students into health career programs than available rotation slots, and many of these students get bogged down with developmental courses and lots of debt. The community colleges also allow students to bounce from program to program accumulating debt and maxing out their Pell grants.

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