Senate Hearing Focuses on Improving Student Success in Higher Education Act

By Allie Arcese, Sr. Director of Strategic Communications & Engagement

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on Wednesday held its eighth hearing on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), this time turning its focus to finding opportunities to improve student success.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the committee, opened the hearing by saying that “far too many” college students are leaving school with debt, but no degree. Part of the problem, he said, is that low-income students face different financial pressures that make them more likely to drop out before completing their degrees.

“Federal policy has emphasized access rather than completion, and we recognize that college students are adults who have the autonomy and responsibility for making decisions for themselves,” Alexander said. “So I think we need to find a way to encourage our over 6,000 institutions to prioritize and encourage student success without throwing a big, wet blanket of a federal mandate that smothers universities.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the minority leader on the committee, said that throughout the reauthorization process she would continue to focus on college affordability and student debt, making sure students have a safe learning environment, and creating “strong, clear pathways” for students into and through higher education. On the last point, Murray said it’s clear “that there is lots of room for improvement.”

“To me, improving outcomes at colleges and universities is an important piece of our work to grow the economy from the middle out, not the top down,” Murray said. “And the success of students today will help guarantee that our nation will be able to compete and lead the world in the years to come.”

One point of contention appeared to surface around eligibility requirements for financial aid. Alexander in his opening remarks suggested that maximum Pell Grants are often awarded to students who do not attend full time, which he described as 30 credits per year. He also said federal aid progress requirements “seem to lack teeth,” saying the Satisfactory Academic Progress standard does not focus enough on progress toward on-time completion.

Murray, on the other hand, said tightening those requirements is a “misguided effort to try to motivate their success.”

“Recent research suggests the exact opposite – students don’t succeed when financial aid policies only serve to punish, rather than reward and support,” Murray said.

The HELP Committee also heard from four witnesses, who gave remarks about how their institutions or organizations have found ways to improve outcomes for students. The witnesses included Stan Jones, president of Complete College America; R. Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System; Timothy Renick, vice provost and vice president for enrollment management and student success at Georgia State University; and Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, director of young adults and postsecondary education at MDRC.

Below are key takeaways from each witness’s testimony:

Stan Jones, Complete College America: Complete College America, since its founding in 2009, has worked with 33 states, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to increase the number of Americans with a postsecondary education, and to close attainment gaps. According to the organization’s data, just 4 percent of full-time students complete an associate degree on time, and 19 percent of students at non-flagship, four-year institutions finish on time. Taking longer to graduate means students forgo potential earnings in the workforce, and pay more in tuition, fees and other college-related expenses. Complete College America’s Alliance of States is developing a set of strategies to improve student success. Corequisite remediation would place remedial students directly into college-level courses with additional support, rather than requiring students to take remedial courses as a prerequisite, which can set them back. “Fifteen to Finish” campaigns encourage students to take a full 15 credits per semester, and cite information on affordability and time to degree. Guided Pathways to Success, or GPS, builds “highly structured” degree plans that act as default pathways to graduating on time. Jones also urged Congress to address the data gaps in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), such as information on part-time, transfer and older students. Read Jones’ full testimony here.

Scott Ralls, North Carolina Community College System: In 2009, student success was declared to be the strategic focus of the community college system, through which “SuccessNC’ was developed. It began as a nine-month listening tour to all campuses, and over the course of five years developed into a set of systemwide reforms and initiatives around student success. The system has, for example, redesigned the statewide dual enrollment programs, integrated developmental education and occupational skills certification into adult education programs, and enabled a guaranteed course transfer for all students who transfer to the University of North Carolina system and many other private universities in the state, among other reforms. While the student outcomes have yet to be evaluated, Ralls said several lessons emerged during the six-year journey that can contribute to the reauthorization of the HEA. Students are more likely to succeed, he said, when they progress along “coherent curriculum pathways,” which is a key reason for the system’s push for year-round state funding and year-round Pell Grants. Ralls also said an emphasis on outcomes and accountability will be important in the reauthorization process, and that more attention should be given to measuring how individual schools impact student success. Read Ralls’ full testimony here.

Timothy Renick, Georgia State University: Over the last 10 years, Georgia State University has implemented several reforms to improve its graduation rates, including those of minority students. Before those changes were made, the institutional graduation rate was 32 percent, and even lower for minority students: 22 percent for Hispanics, 29 percent for African-American students, and 18 percent for black males, specifically. During this time, the university’s student population became even more diverse, and now enrolls 63 percent non-white and 59 percent Pell-eligible students. Since then, the graduation rate has climbed 22 percentage points overall, and graduation rates for black and Latino students have improved by more than 30 percentage points each. Additionally, all racial and ethnic, and economic achievement gaps have been eliminated. Renick said the university accomplished these goals through several methods. Panther Retention Grants, for example, are targeted toward students at risk of dropping out because they could not cover all of their costs. The university awards “micro-grants” to students to prevent them from being dropped from their classes. Previously, as many as 1,000 students each semester were dropped for balances as little as $300. The Graduation Progression Success (GPS) Advising system, Renick said, addresses the problem of students making “bad academic decisions and wasted credit hours.” The system uses 10 years of data and more than 2.5 million grades to create a predictive analytics database that identifies when students make decisions that will put them off track, and alerts an advisor to reach out. Read Renick’s full testimony here.

Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, MDRC: The New York-based nonprofit is focused on conducting large-scale evaluations and projects to test the impacts and cost-effectiveness of different education and social programs. Comprehensive and integrated programs can make a difference, Richburg-Hayes said. The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) is designed to help community college students graduate more quickly, and MDRC’s study of the program shows it nearly doubled three-year graduation rates for remedial college students, and did so at a lower cost than other services. The ASAP program is an example of how structured pathways can help more students complete college. Richburg-Hayes suggested giving colleges and states more incentives to replicate successful programs, such as through First in the World grants. She also said the federal government should encourage additional research on structured pathways, year-round financial aid, and work-study programs. Richburg-Hayes said innovation to the traditional financial aid structure is also necessary. Research has shown that incentive-based grants result in a larger share of students meeting academic benchmarks, as well as increases in the number of credits earned and “modest effects” on grade point averages in the first year, she said. Other ways to transform financial aid, she said, include distributing it in a way that encourages students to devote effort to studies, providing year-round financial aid, and restructuring the notification of Satisfactory Academic Progress. Read Richburg-Hayes’ full testimony here.


Publication Date: 8/6/2015

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