Getting to Graduation: The Importance of College Assessment Policy for Financial Aid Recipients

The Institute for College Access & Success and ACCT, in collaboration with the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office examine the effect financial aid and assessment policy have on graduation and transfer rates.

This post originally appeared on the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) blog

By Debbie Cochrane, The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS)

Earlier this year, The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) and ACCT, in collaboration with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO), set out to explore community college students’ rates of transfer and graduation, and how those rates differed by students’ financial status (both their own ability to pay for college and the amount of financial aid they receive).  This effort was an attempt to expand upon the CCCCO’s Student Success Scorecard efforts, which track first-time students’ success at reaching particular academic milestones but have not included factors related to students’ financial status.  In line with other work on student success and financial status, we found that students with less ability to pay graduated and transferred at lower rates than those with more financial cushion, but that financial aid helped to close the gap.

Our findings also shed interesting light on the importance of college assessment policy, and its particular significance to financial aid recipients. Three out of four California community college students in our sample attempted math or English coursework below transfer level at a CCC, signaling that they had been assessed as being unprepared for college-level coursework. The same is true for 81 percent of students who received a financial aid package that included a institutional fee waiver, Pell Grant, and state Cal Grant, which is particularly surprising given the academic merit standards students must meet to be eligible for a Cal Grant. Eligibility for Cal Grants, the primary state grant aid program in California, requires having a minimum high school grade point average (GPA) of 2.0. Most students’ grades far exceed this threshold: data from the California Student Aid Commission show that the average Cal Grant recipient at a community college has a GPA of 3.0.

The fact that developmental coursework was so prevalent among a group of students who have demonstrated academic merit raises questions. Is the alignment between high school and college curricula so disjointed that students who leave high school with a B average are truly not capable of succeeding in college-level work? Or is it the colleges’ assessment of students’ capabilities that is the issue, such that college-ready students are being placed into developmental coursework unnecessarily?

Indeed, research suggests that many students placed into developmental coursework could succeed in college-level courses, rendering the developmental coursework unnecessary. Importantly, students who take developmental coursework have lower odds of success, and those who do succeed take more time to graduate. In other words, overly aggressive placement of students into developmental coursework isn’t simply duplicative; it has the potential to derail students from reaching their academic goals.

These are particularly problematic issues for financial aid recipients, given strict limits on the number of years students can receive federal Pell Grants (six years) or state Cal Grants (four years).  And it isn’t just grant aid: in our study, 91 percent of students receiving an aid package including a federal student loan had taken developmental coursework. Given these students’ need to repay loans after they leave college, it is particularly important that unnecessary barriers, such as overly aggressive placement into developmental coursework, are removed to increase students’ odds of graduating or transferring.

Within California, developmental placement policies have undergone reforms in recent years, but more remains to be done. A bill currently working its way through the Legislature, AB 705 (Irwin), would require that colleges consider high school performance when determining whether students need remediation. However, whether driven by state policy or not, college leaders must ensure that their own institutional policies do not place students into developmental coursework unnecessarily, causing undue hardship for their most vulnerable students. TICAS and ACCT strongly encourage colleges to use multiple measures – including high school transcripts and test scores – to assess students in order to reduce the likelihood of placing students into developmental coursework unnecessarily. Colleges can also ensure that students receive the targeted support and counseling they need after being placed into developmental coursework, so they understand their progression out of remediation and into – and through – a program of study. These steps will help all students to succeed, and particularly the financial aid recipients for whom the stakes are particularly high.

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