Helping college students finish what they started

Finish what you started. If we’re going to do right by America’s college students, we need to create a culture in higher education that takes this maxim to heart – which is why a new federal plan to expedite college completion by expanding the Pell Grant program is worth a closer look.

Far too many college students aren’t finishing what they’ve started. Barely half of them obtain a degree within six years. The longer it takes them to graduate, the more expensive it gets. Every additional year that a student spends at a public four-year college costs approximately $68,000 (nearly $23,000 in cost of attendance and $45,00 in lost wages), according to Complete College America.

In an effort to address these harsh realities, the White House’s February budget will include proposals for enhancing the Pell Grant program, which provides vital access to higher education for millions of Americans. One of these proposals would increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $300 for students who take at least 15 credits per semester, a standard course load that encourages them to stay on track or even accelerate their progress toward degree attainment.

Talk about a powerful incentive. Students are consumers. And consumers respond to incentivization.

At Cleveland State University, we’ve seen this firsthand. Three years ago, we introduced a Graduation Incentive Plan. It awards a 2-percent tuition rebate (worth $185) and a $200 textbook stipend to CSU undergraduates who complete 30 hours in a single academic year while maintaining good academic standing. Students can receive these awards up to four consecutive years. As a result of this program, in 2014 alone, CSU saw a 14-percent increase in the number of students who took at least 30 credit hours over the academic year.

In addition, CSU has introduced several other initiatives in recent years to help students graduate on time and with less debt, including:

  • A 120-credit-hour standard for graduation which has reduced the average number of credit hours needed to complete most baccalaureate degree programs;
  • Multi-term registration which makes it possible for students to plan coursework for an entire academic year at once, rather than by semester, ensuring they have access to required courses while balancing work and personal obligations;
  • Demand-driven enrollment via course waitlists which allows students to request a spot in a course at full capacity and allows departments to open additional class sections to meet demand;
  • An adjusted tuition band which lets students take up to six three-credit hour courses per semester at the same cost as four courses.

All told, we estimate these incentives and efficiencies have reduced the cost of earning an undergraduate degree and can accelerate completion by up to an entire year.

Our students aren’t the only ones enjoying handsome dividends, either. These initiatives at CSU have corresponded with a steady rise in our fall-to-fall student retention rates (from 67.2 percent in 2012 to 70.7 percent in 2014) as well as a significant increase in our cohort 6-year graduation rates, from below 30 percent to nearly 40 percent.

Based on our experience at CSU, streamlining the path toward college completion is an idea well worth exploring at the national level – and it’s an idea both sides of the aisle can get behind. A plan introduced last year in the Senate made the case for a year-round Pell Grant (currently limited to two semesters annually), which also happens to be part of the Administration’s current proposal. Clearly, such initiatives pack broad appeal.

Approving the current proposals would mean expanding the Pell Grant program to the tune of $2 billion in the coming fiscal year. Granted, that’s a substantial investment. But with the nation’s student loan debt estimated to be increasing by roughly $2,700 per second (current grand total: $1.3 trillion and counting), we simply can’t afford not to consider any reasonable course of action.

A federal policy that has the potential to help college students finish what they’ve started? I’d call that a very good start.

Berkman is the president of Cleveland State University, winner of the 2015 Excellence and Innovation Award for Student Success and College Completion from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.