Sending mixed messages to higher education

Michael A. MacDowell – With significant fanfare, Vice President Joe Biden recently issued a call to action to boost college graduation rates in the United States. His March announcement followed on the heels of a talk by President Obama himself, where he reiterated his long-held belief that college graduates fuel the engine of economic growth that this country needs to compete in a global economy.

The president and vice president are right in calling America’s attention to the issue. The United States currently ranks ninth in the world in the percentage of adults ages 25 to 34 who have a college education. America trails Korea, Canada, Russia, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland and Denmark in this all-important category. In order to meet the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates by the year 2020, our country will need to increase the number of college graduates by 50 percent — turning out about 8 million additional graduates from the current 16 million the country now produces annually.
We’ve seen developed countries in Asia and Europe borrow a strategy from America’s past successes in generating college graduates. Following World War II, the United States fostered college attendance and graduation as a strategy to ensure economic growth. Instead of letting returning GIs join unemployment and soup kitchen lines as they had done during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the GI Bill enabled tens of thousands of veterans to attend college and start new lives and new families. This, in turn, helped create the American dream and grow the middle class.
While the post-911 GI Bill is still helping veterans, Pell Grants are by far the largest investment the government is making today in helping to create a college-educated generation. These are means-tested grants, which award full-time college students up to $5,500 to help cover tuition payments. Although few students receive the maximum Pell Grants, the grants are based solely on need and are inversely related to the income of the student’s family. The lower the family income, the greater the Pell Grant.
In the proposed 2011-2012 federal budget, the maximum Pell Grant is supposed to be cut by $845 per student and the total amount any student can obtain is between $4,705 and $5,550. Those not receiving the maximum Pell Grant would also receive a smaller grant. Pell Grants are clearly the most often-used resource by students to help pay for college. Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOGs), another source to help pay for a college education, are also to be cut. Reducing Pell Grants and SEOG support sends a mixed signal to those working hard to support the president’s goal of increasing college graduation rates by 50 percent. 
Of course in these tough times all federal expenditures need to be examined carefully. An excellent way to determine how to allocate federal dollars for financial aid is to examine the U.S. Department of Education College Completion Tool Kit. That set of policy recommendations suggest, among other things, that the federal and state governments “embrace performance-based funding,” including the graduation rates of colleges and universities.
Among students attending four-year institutions of higher education, only 27 percent graduate in four years. Fifty-three percent graduate in five years and 57 percent complete their education in six years. The fact that Pell Grants are paid on an annual basis means that for every extra year in college, American citizens are paying millions of dollars more in Pell Grant aid. And the longer it takes a student to graduate, the more elusive the president’s goal becomes.
Why are students in four-year colleges taking so long to graduate?  Numerous reasons are given. Many students must work and hence, cannot attend school full time. While this is an important issue, more so is the fact that large, mostly public institutions offer little advising, have precious few academic support systems, and have large class sizes. Students often find the classes they need to graduate are closed because they quickly reach their full capacity. Smaller, mostly private colleges and universities, do a better job of graduating students efficiently. For instance, the four-year graduation rate at Misericordia University for 2009-10 was 66 percent. Few colleges exceed this rate. The graduation rate for all Pennsylvania public higher education institutions was only 30 percent. Why should tax dollars be used to subsidize such inefficiencies?
The way to stimulate growth in the number of college graduates is to allocate funds to students who attend colleges with higher graduation rates and do well in other performance measures. Such a system will present an optimal distribution of taxpayer dollars to the students who deserve them and ensure that the president’s goal of increasing the number of college graduates is met.
Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.

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May 17th, 2011

Staff Reporter

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