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On Wednesday, the Senate HELP Committee held another hearing on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA). While exact timing of when the Senate will take up HEA is still to be determined, Senator Alexander has said repeatedly he plans to pass a bill this year. In our June Education Insider survey, however, a strong majority of Insiders said they don’t expect HEA to by reauthorized before the end of 2016.

In an effort to move the process forward, the Committee continued with a hearing this week to tackle the topic of student completion and success. The Committee convened the hearing to hear how institutions are improving success for community college students, disadvantaged students, and those who have to take remedial (developmental) courses before earning credit towards their degrees. Throughout the hearing, members were interested in the balance between giving schools the freedom to innovate and implement reforms best suited to their students’ specific needs while also holding the institutions and the students accountable for the federal money they receive.

Panelists included:

  • Stan Jones, President, Complete College America
  • R. Scott Ralls, President, North Carolina Community College System
  • Timothy Renick, PhD, Vice Provost And Vice President For Enrollment Management And Student Success, Georgia State University
  • Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, PhD, President, Young Adults and Postsecondary Education, MRDC

We saw several key themes emerge from the discussion:

  • „Comprehensive integrated reform: Measures like clearly-mapped pathways and targeted advising are having a demonstrable impact on retention and completion, as does integrating remedial coursework into regular college courses (rather than making students wait to begin their credit-bearing classes until after they’ve finished the developmental sequence). As example, Dr. Richburg-Hayes highlighted CUNY’s ASAP program, an accelerated degree program that allows students to take integrated programs, or normal classes for credit combined with remedial ones. This has allowed CUNY to nearly double the rate at which students graduate in three years. Students are required to attend full time (12 credits per semester), and receive regular advising, financial supports, and clear, ongoing communication about structured pathways that will lead to a degree. Dr. Ralls of the North Carolina Community College System highlighted that statewide articulation agreements can keep community college students from falling through the cracks when they transfer to four-year schools.
  • Better, more easily accessible financial aid. In many cases, however, even committed, on-track students drop out of school only a few credits away from graduating because of minimal financial difficulties ‘ as low as $300. To address this, the Georgia State University began giving out one-time micro grants to cover the gap between tuition and fees and what students can pay. This intervention brought thousands of students back to class and to graduation. Senators and panelists differed, however, on what kind of flexibility should be allowed for Pell grant recipients. There was disagreement over whether to require Pell grant recipients to take 15 credits at a time, rather than 12; while 12 is considered full time, only taking 12 credits per semester is not enough to ensure graduating in four years, thus increasing their debt and decreasing their chances of completion. Senator Alexander and Mr. Jones suggested that pushing 15 might help correct that, but Dr. Ralls raised the point that this might be detrimental to the many students who have no choice but to work part time while they are in school.
  • More data. Senators Cassidy and Murray were particularly insistent on this. While most institutions keep track of who’s completing and who’s not, they don’t publish this information, let alone work together to aggregate it into one database that policymakers can use. And the lack of good data for legislators is acute ‘for example, policymakers can’t easily determine whether students who receive Pell grants (which get billions of dollars in government funding) complete college or not. But the focus on data wasn’t just about informing policy; Dr. Renick of Georgia State shared how data and predictive analytics has made it easier for the university to identify and support its most at-risk students’on a campus of over 30,000 students. In recent years, the University has doubled the number of at-risk students they have enrolled while also drastically improving its graduation rate by over 20% thanks to its data and advising approach, which ensures that students in risk of dropping out or falling behind get immediate support.
  • Incentives and flexibility. Several panelists brought up the need for flexibility with federal funding, especially in the area of incentivizing institutional collaboration in testing good ideas. Dr. Renick , for example, highlighted the work of the University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of 11 large, public research universities dedicated to improving student outcomes’ all of the coalition members now use a data tracking system like that of Georgia State’s to support their students.

„The Committee will reconvene in September, after August recess, to continue their series of hearings on HEA.„