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Make Higher Ed Work for All Students by Learning from What Works

When many Americans — and far too many lawmakers — think of a typical college student, the image that often comes to mind is of 18 year-olds who recently turned their tassels at high school graduation. But if you surveyed students at America’s 7,200 higher education institutions, you’d find that this conventional wisdom is deeply flawed. Nearly 40 percent of college students today are over the age of 25, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that a majority of students are financially independent, more than a quarter are parents, and the majority work full- or part-time. Unfortunately, our higher education system isn’t meeting the needs of these students, which is one reason why students are taking on increasing amounts of debt and less than half of first-time full-time students are graduating with a credential within eight years.

Thankfully, with Congress looking at reauthorizing the major federal law governing higher education and making important decisions about how to spend federal resources for higher education, lawmakers have the opportunity to reshape policy based on initiatives that we know are working for today’s students. Investments in helping students achieve degrees shouldn’t just stop at helping students get to school, but actually help them complete and succeed.

One model that has proven successful in addressing the holistic needs of students today is the City University of New York (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative. CUNY ASAP provides students with a range of financial, academic, and student support services to help students juggle the multiple demands on their schedules and finances. The program covers the cost of tuition not covered by financial aid, provides students with free textbooks, and offers free unlimited use MetroCards to all participating students. ASAP also provides students with flexible class scheduling options and academic counseling to ensure students take the right courses and graduate on time. Finally, to maximize the impact of the program upon graduation, ASAP assists students with transitioning to a four-year program or find a job that suits their interests and skills. By helping students with demonstrated financial need cover both tuition and non-tuition expenses like transportation and textbooks, ASAP propels students toward graduation. In fact, ASAP students graduate at more than double the rate of non-ASAP students. Under the PROSPER Act, students taking 15 credits would receive a modest $300 in additional Pell aid. With the typical college student spending in excess of $1,200 a year on textbooks, a meager $300 in additional financial support hardly transforms their ability to pay for college. To build on ASAP’s success, Congress should explore authorizing funding to establish pilot programs that would scale the program at schools confronting completion challenges.

While many students are grappling with the challenges ASAP is intended to combat, like rising tuition, transportation, and textbook costs, the challenges facing America’s growing cohort of student parents are particularly acute and need unique solutions. That is why two decades ago Congress authorized a small federal grant program to help low-income student parents access subsidized child care on or near campus from an accredited child care provider. Currently, the federal government spends about $15 million a year on the program, helping nearly 3,400 Pell-eligible student parents around the country. The overwhelming majority of these students tell us that the program has had a transformative effect on their ability to access, afford, and succeed in school. For instance, Kayla Goodin at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs told us that CCAMPIS allowed her and her child’s father to finish school without going broke. The grant allowed them both to work part-time in order to focus on their studies, spend time with their son Troy, and afford daycare bills without having to take out loans. “I would not have completed my Associate’s Degree without the grant,” she said. Currently, the program helps just over one-fifth of one percent of all Pell-receiving student parents with young dependent children. Congress should increase investment in the program to $611 million to help at least 10 percent of the nearly 1.4 million Pell-recipients caring for dependent children under the age of five. This would allow many of the United States’ more than 1,000 campus child care centers to provide support to tens of thousands more student parents.

Finally, with nearly one-third of students today being the first in their family to go to college, we must do more to connect them with support services that help them overcome the unique challenges they confront while going to school. Non-profit groups like Single Stop are doing just that by providing community college students — three-quarters of whom in the program are first generation — financial advice, with a particular interest in helping students access benefits they qualify for like SNAP and subsidized health care, among others. Given that first generation students are far more likely to come from financially vulnerable households, shielding them from food and health insecurity is essential for promoting academic preparedness and helping them thrive in school. Studies suggest that assisting students in accessing wraparound services is critical to narrowing the 15 percentage point gap in six-year degree attainment between first-generation students and those whose parents attended college.

Today’s students face unique challenges, which is why we must act to meet their evolving needs and help colleges foster supportive campus communities that help students graduate, not just enroll in school. Thankfully, models exist that are breaking down the financial and social barriers facing today’s students. Congress should build on the success of these student-centered programs as it weighs how to finance and reform our higher education system.