President Biden’s FY22 federal budget request includes $62 billion over ten years in new College Completion Grants aimed at increasing completion rates nationwide among students of color, first-generation and low-income students. This proposal expands upon the Biden Administration’s earlier-released American Families Plan, which described a major new investment in “evidence-based strategies to strengthen completion and retention rates at community colleges and institutions that serve students from our most disadvantaged communities.” Further, the funding would complement proposed new investments in the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education to scale institutional evidence-based approaches to improve college access, completion, and earnings upon graduation.
In Congress, two similar proposals are gaining traction: Representative Meng’s and Senator Schatz’s companion bills, each called the Community College Student Success Act and Senator Baldwin and Representative Dan Levin’s America’s College Promise Act. While these bills vary in the specific details of how the funds would be distributed and their allowable uses, they all would provide substantial new resources for initiatives with a proven record of increasing the number of students persisting and completing college.
This kind of investment is needed. The economic return on a college degree is at close to an all-time high yet college completion rates for low-income students and Black, Indigenous, Latina/o and other students of color (BIPOC) lag. Evidence-based college completion programs, which are targeted at supporting these students, can help narrow equity gaps by increasing their graduation rates. These programs all serve BIPOC, first-generation and students from low-income families disproportionately and operate in community colleges and regional public universities that serve high need student populations and are under-resourced relative to research and private universities. As one example of the impact on equity that these interventions can yield, a long-term, rigorous evaluation of the MAAPS program found that it increased the graduation rate of Black students by 8 percentage points, college persistence of Black students by at least 12 percentage points, and GPAs by .22 points. “There is a lot to learn from the Georgia State experience and outcomes, including the exceptionally positive impact for Black students in terms of credit accumulation, cumulative GPA, persistence, and most importantly graduation, which has the potential to inform institutional efforts around promoting equity and closing racial graduation gaps,” concluded the study’s authors.
A coalition of national policy, advocacy, civil rights and research groups have proposed that a portion of any new funds aimed at increasing college completion rates be dedicated to programs and models that meet the criteria for receiving an expansion grant from the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program. The criteria for an EIR Expansion grant is a program that is supported by strong evidence and ready to scale nationally. Strong evidence means there is at least one randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of the practice that has a statistically significant, positive, and relevant finding, and low rates of sample attrition throughout the study. The second level of the EIR grant program, called Mid-Phase, requires an evaluation that demonstrates a statistically significant impact on a key outcome measure. Early-Phase grants are awarded to programs that have promise because a core component of the intervention is informed by rigorous research or research suggests it is likely to impact an important outcome.
One example, CUNY ASAP, which has been replicated in four states across the country, satisfies the EIR expansion grant’s rigorous criteria. A broader swath of programs, including InsideTrack, which has a national presence, One Million Degrees in Chicago, ProjectQUEST in San Antonio, and others have met the criteria for receiving an EIR Mid-Phase grant. These programs have been rigorously evaluated and found to demonstrably increase college persistence or credit accumulation, a leading indicator of college graduation, or student earnings after graduation.
Where are these programs located and where do they operate?
The map above illustrates the reach of evidence-based college completion programs. They operate in 23 states across the country and may be found in major urban centers like New York City, smaller metropolises like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Nashville, and even smaller communities like Redwood City, California. They are also located in places as wide-ranging and different as Durant, Oklahoma, Fort Worth, Texas, Indianapolis, Indiana, and Corvallis, Oregon.
Evidence-based student college completion programs serve a diverse mix of students at mostly two-year public institutions as well as four-year institutions. MAAPS is a college completion program that has yielded statistically significant results at Georgia State University and two other four-year public universities. CUNY ASAP similarly has grown into two four-year colleges in New York City, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Lehman College, and is poised to expand into four-year colleges in other states soon.
How quickly can these programs expand?
Leaders want to expand to serve more students with these models while ensuring that they have the same impact on student outcomes as they grow. That takes time. Most programs and institutions devote a full academic year to planning before serving students with the model. They use this time to plan, train staff, develop the real-time data system that they will use to track progress and measure success, garner institutional support from a wide array of relevant staff and faculty, build the initiative into institutional strategic plans, and align these initiatives with other counseling college completion initiatives that are underway on each campus. With additional federal resources, program leaders could not only expand their initiatives to new campuses, but they could also engage in a “train the trainer” approach, helping to spread the lessons they have learned about successful replication to new campus leaders and staff.
Federal funding should prioritize ensuring fidelity to any model being replicated or scaled so that an injection of new federal funding results in substantial increases in college persistence and graduation rates among targeted student populations. Doing so will require a bold investment, with a significant set-aside for technical assistance and institutional capacity building to help ensure that the lessons learned about scaling effectively are employed. But the capacity exists to scale proven college completion programs nationwide and in a wide variety of settings within two years. A $62 billion federal investment would transform America’s college graduation rate by spreading a proven model to rural communities, cities, small and large, and everything in between.