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This Week in PubHub: College Access and Success

June 24, 2011

(Kyoko Uchida manages PubHub, the Foundation Center's online catalog of foundation-sponsored publications. In her previous post, she looked at four reports that explore ways to strengthen teacher preparation programs.)

Much of the discussion about boosting the number of college graduates in the U.S. seems to focus on preparing students for college-level academics and expanding access to postsecondary education through community colleges. But many students who do go to college ultimately drop out without obtaining a degree -- especially those from low-income families. This week in PubHub, we're highlighting four reports that examine college access and success, with a focus on affordability, academic supports, and employment outcomes.

Instead of increasing opportunities for economically disadvantaged students, current tuition tax credits, deductions, and financial aid policies are more likely to benefit middle- and upper-income students, a new report from the Education Trust argues. Funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education, the report, Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial-Aid Policies Hurt Low-Income Students (20 pages, PDF), found that as a result of regressive federal, state, and institutional policies, low-income students are often expected to pay more than their middle-income peers as a percentage of family income. Indeed, out of nearly twelve hundred four-year colleges and universities, only five enrolled low-income students at rates as high as the national average, expected those students to pay no more than middle-income students as a percentage of family income, and had a graduation rate of at least 50 percent. With only 8 percent of youth from the lowest-income quartile earning a bachelor's degree by age twenty-four (compared with 82 percent from the highest-income quartile), any reforms to financial aid policies, the authors argue, must give priority to helping low-income students, removing technical barriers to accessing financial assistance, and ensuring enough support to raise completion rates.

Cost is not the only obstacle for low-income students looking to attend and graduate from college. While nearly half of all undergraduates begin their college career at a more affordable community college, only a third of them earn a degree or certificate within six years. The MDRC report Opening Doors to Student Success: A Synthesis of Findings From an Evaluation at Six Community Colleges (12 pages, PDF) highlights lessons learned from the Opening Doors Demonstration program, which is designed to raise college completion rates through learning communities and targeted student services such as academic counseling as well as performance-based scholarships. According to the report, the scholarships helped low-income parents enroll as full-time students and earn more credits, while enhanced counseling and freshmen learning communities resulted in modest improvements in academic performance and second-term registration. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the report calls for further innovations in developmental education and financial aid reform.

Racial/ethnic disparities in college completion and transfer rates also are commonplace. According to Divided We Fail: Improving Completion and Closing Racial Gaps in California's Community Colleges (20 pages, PDF), a report from the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at CSU Sacramento, about 75 percent of African-American and 80 percent of Latino/Hispanic community college students fail to earn a certificate or degree or transfer to a four-year college or university within six years. The authors offer a model for increasing overall completion rates and reducing racial/ethnic gaps that involves analyzing and reporting student achievement data and implementing best practices based on those findings. Funded by the Campaign for College Opportunity and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the report points out that strengthening community colleges is essential to raising educational attainment among the Latino/Hispanic population, whose share of California's working-age population is projected to reach 50 percent by 2040.

The Lumina Foundation for Education report The Degree Qualifications Profile (34 pages, PDF) examines college success from the perspective of the economic and societal value of the degrees students earn. The report proposes a qualifications framework that would define degree "quality" and improve capacity throughout the postsecondary education system to ensure that students learn the things they need to know. The profile includes benchmarks for applied learning, intellectual skills, specialized knowledge, broad integrative knowledge, and civic learning at the associate, bachelor's, and master's degree levels and across all fields of specialization. Such a framework, the authors argue, would provide a common vocabulary for sharing best practices, as well as a foundation for better public understanding of institutions of higher education and more reliable measures of accountability.

Care to weigh in on efforts to expand college access and improve rates of success? Do you know of any practices or policies that are helping students from low-income families and communities of color not only gain access to higher education but also succeed in college? What aspects of the debate are missing or being overlooked? Use the comments section to share your thoughts.

And be sure to visit PubHub, where you can browse more than seven hundred reports on education-related topics.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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