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Guest Post: A More Aggressive Strategy for Helping At-Risk Students

Published:  May 27, 2008

By Art Hauptman

Since the passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the federal government has had a policy of helping students from a broad range of circumstances pay for college. One of the principal lessons we should draw from this half century of experience is that when it comes to students most at-risk, the traditional approach of providing aid through grants, loans, and work-study is not nearly enough to make for a successful policy.

The evidence for this conclusion is clear from several angles. For one, while the federal investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in student aid over time has certainly helped raise participation and attainment rates to record levels across the board, the gaps in access and success between students from the lowest and the highest family income brackets are virtually the same as when the student aid programs were created.

Another piece of evidence is the success of early intervention efforts such as the “I Have A Dream” program and others like it in which classes of grade school classes are adopted by philanthropists or companies. Through a combination of aid guarantees and a wide range of support services, the students in these classes graduate from high school, go to college, receive a degree and generally achieve at much higher levels than students who did not participate in these efforts.

These results support the common sense notion that if we wait until the 11th or 12th grade to tell students they have grants and scholarships, we miss many of those most at-risk who have already dropped out of school or who find themselves grossly under-prepared to continue their education beyond high school once they have reached college age.

The most common response from policy makers and many advocates to the problem of reaching these students is to try to make the Pell Grant program what it was supposed to be when it was created in 1972: a federal entitlement in which students as early as the 6th grade are guaranteed there will be a certain amount of grant available to them when they reach college age.

But such efforts are likely to fail under the prevailing federal budget rules that discourage the creation of new entitlements and prevent budgetary commitments many years in advance, as would be necessary to provide elementary and middle school students with an assured level of aid.

But the federal government could take a number of other steps that together would help raise the aspirations and improve the preparation of such students.

As I proposed last week on this blog, policy makers should more effectively target Pell Grants so that they go to the students who need them most. Congress could then use the savings from eliminating middle-class eligibility for Pell Grants to to significantly increase the maximum award for the lowest-income students. [Meanwhile, students who lose eligibility for Pell Grants because of the income cutoff would qualify for a much-expanded tuition tax credit.]

Raising Aspirations and Transforming Programs

But if the past half century of experience with student aid has taught us anything, it is that we need a more aggressive federal strategy that goes far beyond the better targeting of existing benefits. I believe that a major expansion, and modification, of GEAR UP would be one such step. During its decade-long existence, this federal early intervention program, which was modeled on the principles of the “I Have a Dream” effort, has had a positive impact on improving the preparation and participation of low-income students through its middle-school and college partnerships.

Part of the federal strategy should also be to provide incentives for states and institutions to do more to recruit, enroll, and graduate students from at-risk populations. One ready way to do this would be to transform the existing Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) and Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership (LEAP) programs so that funds would be allocated to colleges and states based on the number of Pell Grant recipients they enroll and graduate. In the case of SEOG, this would also have the added benefit of shifting funds to colleges with higher concentrations of Pell Grant recipients and away from some well–endowed private institutions with huge endowments that get a disproportionate amount of funding based on grandfather provisions that have long outlived their usefulness or rationale.

Finally, to emulate a key feature in “I Have a Dream” where students are guaranteed enough funds to go to college, the federal government should establish college savings accounts for poor but promising students. Recipients could be designated by their states and localities based on whether they live in neighborhoods with high levels of at-risk students or other similar criteria. Funding of these accounts could be provided through a mix of public and philanthropic support and would not adversely affect a student’s eligibility for Pell Grants. The point is for the government and the private sector to replace at least part of the savings to which students from middle and upper class families have access, thereby helping to raise the aspirations of impoverished students to higher levels in their more formative years.

Recognizing the importance of early intervention for improving the access and success of at-risk students must be a key part of any effective federal strategy.

Art Hauptman is an independent consultant on higher education finance issues. His guest blog column will continue to appear each Tuesday in the month of May. Views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the New America Foundation.

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