Taking On the Challenge of College Completion

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The following op-ed is cross-posted from The New York Times

By John B. King Jr.

The $1.2 trillion that borrowers and their parents owe on student loans for college is an eye-popping number — one that some policy analysts, pundits and journalists often cite in declaring a student loan crisis.

But a related challenge deserves greater attention: the college completion challenge. President Obama has called for America to once again lead the world in college graduation. And Americans are indeed earning more degrees than ever before. Still, far too many students start college but do not finish, with students of color and first-generation and low-income students dropping out at higher rates than their white or better-off peers. If students have to borrow, they may not earn enough money to repay their loans. The typical defaulter owes less than $9,000.

The bottom line is this: Debt without a degree often leads to default.

Colleges, states and the federal government can work to change this. The Obama administration has made college more affordable by adding tens of billions of dollars in student aid and creating tax credits for college tuition, made it easier for students to repay their loans, and encouraged graduating on time.

Across the country, innovative leaders are showcasing strategies that work.

The University of Hawaii’s graduation rate has improved significantly since the university began giving students incentives to attend class full time.

At Georgia State University, the completion rate increased by 22 percentage points over a decade as the institution offered peer advising, provided microgrants for low-income students and used data analytics to help advisers identify students at risk of dropping out.

The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) that operates at six of the City University of New York’s community colleges has shown strong results, too. The program requires students to attend full time, provides counseling and career services, and pays for transportation and textbooks. Tuition and fees over and above a student’s financial aid are also covered. ASAP has reduced the cost per degree and nearly doubled the percentage of students who have graduated despite starting in remedial classes.

These promising examples offer hope, but colleges cannot tackle this challenge alone. College completion deserves the same national attention frequently given to debt totals. Congress should support common-sense proposals such as structuring the Pell grant program to raise completion rates and providing incentives to scale up innovative approaches like those discussed above. States need to share responsibility, starting by reversing the trend of disinvestment in higher education.

It is in all our long-term interest to make sure that students not only have access to a high-quality education but also that they graduate.