Dr. Ann Coles Senior Vice President, College Access Services The Education Resources Institute Director, Pathways to College Network
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Public Hearing on the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act
March 7, 2003, Westin Crown Center, Kansas City, Missouri
Testimony prepared by Ann Coles, Senior Vice President, College Access Services, The Education Resources Institute (TERI), and Director, Pathways to College Network
I appreciate the opportunity to offer some recommendations for your consideration as you develop policies for improving college access and affordability through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965.
My recommendations are based on the experience of The Education Resources Institute (TERI), a non-profit organization in Boston that facilitates access to higher education for individuals from all backgrounds, the findings of the Pathways to College Network, an alliance of 32 national organization and funders committed to improving college success for under-served students, and the National Dialogue on Student Financial Aid that Pathways co-sponsored with The College Board.
The Education Resources Institute provides college access and information programs and education finance services on both the local and national levels. Since its founding in 1985, TERI has provided support to over 900,000 students and families and guaranteed nearly $5 billion in non-government education loans. TERI's college access programs, including the Boston Higher Education Information Center, the Boston Higher Education Partnership, and the Pathways to College Network, focus on addressing barriers faced by individuals trying to enter, pay for and succeed in college. TERI also has assisted with establishing community-based college access centers in Washington, DC, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and several other cities.
The Pathways to College Network is a public/private partnership committed to improving college readiness and success for low-income students, under-represented minorities, first generation college attendees, and students with disabilities. Launched in 2001, the Pathways partners joined forces to address the unacceptably low college-going and completion rates for disadvantaged populations. What distinguishes the Pathways to College Network from other initiatives is our emphasis on using data and research to improve practice and policy at state, local and institutional levels. Pathways connects education practitioners, policy makers, community leaders and other stakeholders with research-based knowledge and resources for improving the preparation, enrollment and degree completion of under-served populations. Our focus on what works is consistent with the emphasis of the Department of Education and No Child Left Behind on promoting evidence based change.
The National Dialogue on Student Financial Aid, which involved a blue ribbon panel of leading education policy shapers and four regional hearings with over 700 people providing testimony, recently culminated its work with a report, Challenging Times, Clear Choices: An Action Agenda for College Access and Success. Through the Dialogue, we gained a better understanding of how various sources of student aid might work in tandem to expand college access and create financial, intellectual and social value. The report outlines five principles for guiding financial aid policy and ten broad policy recommendations.
Looking at data on college-going and completion, the evidence is undisputable. Despite four decades of effort, low-income populations, African Americans and Hispanics, and students with disabilities still lag substantially behind other groups. Through our experience at TERI and the research of the Pathways to College Network and the National Dialogue on Student Financial Aid, we have identified recommendations in three key areas - academic preparation, financial aid, and early information about postsecondary options - that I believe will allow us to make significant progress in expanding college access and improving affordability for these under-served groups. Underlying these recommendations is an emphasis on using strategies that we know from evidence are effective. Pathways is summarizing the evidence-based effective strategies we have identified for improving college access into a report to be widely disseminated by our partners. We will provide you a copy of this report as well as the report of findings and recommendations from the National Dialogue on Student Financial Aid.
Federal leadership should focus on policies that ensure every student graduates from high school ready for postsecondary education. This goal is particularly important given the demands of today's economy and the skills needed to earn a living wage. While high school should be a pathway to college and careers for all students, regardless of background, currently it is a pathway to nowhere for many. Only one-third of high school students take a curriculum that prepares them for college level work, and almost half of those who do start college need remedial work when they get there. The state of Texas recently made completion of a college preparatory curriculum the requirement for a high school diploma unless families specifically request an exemption. We would go far toward expanding college access for under-served populations if other states followed the Texas example.
Five themes have emerged from the Pathways to College Network research related to improving under-served students' preparation for college. Substantial evidence suggests that we need to: 1) raise expectations for students, 2) provide students with academic support to enable them to succeed in academically rigorous work, 3) improve social support for students in their academic and emotional development, 4) align curricula and expectations across grades and align high school graduation with college admissions requirements, and 5) make quality evaluation a required component of all efforts. The Pathways research also clearly establishes that preparing students for college is not simply the responsibility of K-12 educators. Rather, it requires a strong partnership among key players, particularly those from higher education. The Higher Education Act provides various options for improving students' college readiness. Specific recommendations related to these options include the following:
1. Increase the scope and scale of TRIO and GEAR UP, currently the most substantial precollegiate academic preparation programs in the nation besides schools themselves. Both programs have high expectations for participants and provide high academic and social support. TRIO Upward Bound and Talent Search programs work intensively with individual students, providing academic skill-building, academic advising, and cultural enrichment activities. Some programs focus specifically on academic support for students with major disabilities. GEAR UP provides tutoring, college awareness activities, and other support while working to transform low-income schools into college prep schools.
2. Link federally funded precollegiate programs with school reform initiatives and encourage collaborative work to improve college preparation through shared experiences and activities.
3. Incorporate into teacher preparation activities training to help current and prospective teachers understand the need to raise expectations for students, and how teachers' cultural and social beliefs affect their expectations of students, the way they teach, and the need to change in order to meet student needs more effectively.
4. Target resources to low-performing high schools where students have little access to rigorous college preparatory courses. Make provisions for students to have a six-year plan for their future education, beginning in ninth grade, and an academic counselor who will monitor the plan and help students get the support they need to achieve their goals. GEAR UP and the TRIO Talent Search Programs actually begin this planning process with students in the seventh grade.
5. Use financial aid as incentive to improve students' academic preparation for college. Make early commitment of financial aid in conjunction with the provision of academic and social support and students completing a rigorous college preparatory curriculum. The Indiana Twenty-first Century Scholars Program provides a tested model worth replicating.
6. Require schools, colleges and programs to provide data regarding their success in improving college enrollment and success. Expand the role of national clearinghouses to monitor and report on the college success of students who participated in precollegiate outreach programs.
The fundamental purpose of student financial aid at all levels is to assist financially needy students and assure that individuals have access and choice among postsecondary institutions without regard to ability to pay. The federal government should lead in partnership with states, colleges and universities, and the private sector in developing policies and programs that promote investment in need-based aid. Specific recommendations for federal leadership include the following:
1. Provide a commitment of aid for the neediest students to cover the average fixed charges at four-year public colleges and universities by integrating aid and tuition financing policies at federal and state levels. Minnesota and Washington state have integrated aid policies across federal, state and institution programs in complementary ways that may serve as models. Increase the use of federal dollars to leverage state and institutional investment in financial aid, as is the case with Federal Work Study, GEAR UP and Perkins Loans.
2. Focus federal aid funds on getting students into and through college. Examine how best to allocate federal aid dollars, be it on students while in school and the early years of loan repayment or beyond that time. Reward institutions that retain and graduate Pell eligible students. Minimize loan burden for students with the least ability to repay.
3. Simplify the application and allocation processes, and make them more transparent to students and families. Recognize that most students' financial circumstance don't change dramatically from year to year and make multi-year determination of aid eligibility. Devise ways for students to know the level of award for which they will be eligible throughout college. Such a strategy will provide confidence that sufficient aid will be available for students to complete their studies. Multi-year awards also will reduce process costs.
4. Recognize the academic workload limitations of students with documented disabilities and allow proportional eligibility for aid if they can only attend half-time or less.
5. Develop mechanisms to assess effectiveness of financial aid in meeting program and policy goals. Track completion rates for all students, just as No Child Left Behind requires achievement data on all students. Require institutions to report the reasons students withdraw before completion. Measure the effectiveness of federal matching funds in generating incremental state and institutional funding and determine the optimal design for these policies.
Information about Postsecondary Options
The federal government also should take the lead in intensifying efforts to reach students and families with information about how to pay for college. Substantial evidence exists regarding families' needs for more information. Nearly half of all parents want more information about paying for college. Lower income families have the least information about how to pay for college. According to a Harris poll commissioned by the Sallie Mae Fund and released in late January, 60% of families making less than $50,000 a year said they need more information about paying for college compared with 37% of families with incomes above $75,000. While some states, higher education systems, and national organizations conduct public awareness campaigns promoting college access, a Pathways to College Network study of these campaigns identified a number of problems with such efforts. Problems include insufficient targeting of messages to lower income students and families, no powerful, compelling national message, and no message delivery in the popular culture. (Capturing the College Potential of Students from Under-Served Populations: An Analysis of Efforts to Overcome Social and Financial Barriers to College, 2002)
We need a large scale, well-researched national social marketing campaign to carry messages about attending and paying for college to far greater numbers of students and families than present efforts are able to reach. Such a campaign also would increase awareness of and access to information about preparing for college among students and families. Specific recommendations include the following:
1. Target early and straightforward information about available aid, qualification and expected family contributions to lower income students and parents in order to assure them that college is affordable. Include information about the benefits of postsecondary education and how students prepare for college.
2. Collect and conduct research to determine the characteristics of populations currently lacking information that can lead to effective messages and materials and appropriate means of reaching these populations. Build on existing resources, such as those developed by the Oklahoma Board of Regents and the National Council for Minorities in Engineering.
3. Make well-researched strategies and tactics available for states, systems and organizations to use in expanding their outreach as well as improving the quality and efficiency of their existing efforts.
4. Bring together organizations to be involved in the campaign to build commonality of purpose, identify best practices, develop shared new directions and activities, and address common concerns. Link organizations' networks to the national campaign and to each other for disseminating messages, information and materials.
5. Enlist financial institutions participating in the federal education loan programs to allocate resources to support communications strategies targeting lower income families similar to those they use to market 529 savings plans to middle and upper income families.
6. Strengthen and expand the provision of financial aid information and counseling by TRIO, GEAR UP and other federally funded outreach programs and through the Office of Federal Student Assistance web site.
In conclusion, I encourage you and your staff to utilize the resources of The Education Resources Institute (TERI), the Pathways to College Network, and the National Dialogue on Student Financial Aid as you consider various policy options for expanding college access and improving affordability. We share your commitment to making a college education a real option for all interested Americans, and we want to support your efforts in whatever ways we can.