Why Higher Education Act reauthorization must put more students on the path to college completion 
© Getty Images

If there is one fundamentally and uniquely American idea, it is the “American dream” – the idea that where one ends up in life should never be determined by where one begins. Earning a bachelor’s degree remains the most promising pathway to achieving this dream. Yet nationally only 1-in-10 students from low-income families will earn their college diploma.

At KIPP, a national network of public charter schools, our students are not immune to these barriers. That is why nearly a decade ago we developed a system to help our students get into and graduate from college. We do this by introducing students to the idea of college as early as kindergarten; by providing a comprehensive and challenging college preparatory curriculum; by counseling students on how to choose the right college for them; by reducing financial barriers; and by supporting their social and emotional needs.

ADVERTISEMENT

And we’ve made real progress. Graduates of KIPP high schools’ complete college at a rate of 45 percent, that is four times the national average of 11 percent for students from low-income families.

But none of those numbers are good enough. And this year, the country has an opportunity to do more.

The 116th Congress is poised to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), the federal law governing higher education programs, providing a once-in-a decade chance to promote a more equitable education system.

In a report we released today, we are calling on Congress to focus HEA reforms on five key areas that can create a smoother road for millions of students from college to career.

First, we recommend Congress create a federal funding stream to support highly-effective college counseling. Nationally, the counselor-to-student ratio is nearly 500-to-1, meaning most students in high-needs communities see a college counselor once or twice before making a decision that affects them for a lifetime. At KIPP we maintain a 100-to-1 ratio average.

Ensuring students can identify colleges that match their skills and needs, navigate a complicated application and financial aid process and understand what to expect when they arrive on campus are critical steps on the road to college success.

Second, we must reduce the financial barriers to college by creating an affordability guarantee for students from low-income families. According to The Education Trust, middle to high-income families pay 27 and 14 percent of their income, respectively, on higher education. But low-income families pay 72 percent of their income to send one student to college. Forty three percent of KIPP alumni report missing meals to pay for books, fees, and other college expenses. This must change. Efforts to reduce the cost of college should be coupled with efforts to improve debt-lending and repayment, so students do not continue to suffer the inequities of the higher education finance system into their careers.  

Third, we should create an innovation fund to support colleges and universities that are redesigning their systems to better serve students from low-income families and students of color. And federal policymakers need to make federal financial aid available to undocumented students, along with passing comprehensive immigration reform, including a permanent solution for DREAMers.

Fourth, we recommend increasing investments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority Serving Institutions. These institutions serve nearly 5 million students of color, amounting to more than one-quarter of all undergraduates enrolled in higher education. These institutions deserve greater investment, so they can continue to serve as engines of mobility and equity.

And fifth, we should improve career integration throughout the pipeline from PreK to career and modernize and expand the federal work-study program to offer opportunities relevant to students’ majors and career interests.

To realize the benefits of each of these recommendations, data transparency is paramount. Students should understand a school’s true costs, its graduates’ debt load, and how those graduates fare in the workforce, and this data should be disaggregated by income, race and gender. Better data enables students, families, educators and policymakers to make informed decisions.

This week, KIPP students, families and allies are heading to Capitol Hill to call on both Democrats and Republicans to join with educational leaders, the business community and advocates to collectively support this new set of policy recommendations and formally incorporate them into HEA reauthorization bill this year. By prioritizing college completion at the top and attaching meaningful incentives and accountability metrics for grantees and institutions, we can help students get one step closer to realizing their American dream.

Richard Buery is chief of policy & public affairs at the KIPP Foundation.