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Congress has the opportunity to help college students graduate on time with a degree

For millions of Americans, higher education is the best pathway to the middle class and achieving a good standard of living. Whether a four-year college or university, a community college, or a technical school, helping students access post-secondary education is one of the highest-impact investments that governments at all levels can make. Researchers at Brown University have found that enrollment at a public four-year institution boosts students’ household income at age 30 by 20 percent (and by even more for low-income students), while a paper from MIT found that access to community college increased income by 21 percent.

However, these impressive results are to a large extent contingent on graduating with a degree, not just enrolling. Researchers studied the cohort of students entering the Texas higher education system in 2000, and found that students who dropped out of college saw income gains that were only half as large as those who finished their degree (compared to those not attending post-secondary education at all). Similarly, students who dropped out without a degree were much less likely to be employed 15 years later than those who graduated.

It is extremely concerning, then, that 37 percent of students who enter four-year public colleges and 61 percent who enter public two-year community colleges don’t graduate with a credential within six years. Each year, those students are collectively losing billions of dollars in earnings and hundreds of thousands of jobs. Third Way estimates that improving the overall graduation rate for four- and two-year colleges from its current 57 percent to upwards of 80 percent for just one grade level of students could create over 100,000 jobs and boost wages by almost $5,000/year for 700,000 two-year degree holders and by $19,000/year for 500,000 four-year degree holders.

These numbers are stunning. By not providing the support and assistance that our students need, the country is preventing hundreds of thousands of Americans from reaching the middle class each year.

That’s why I was proud to introduce the Fund for Innovation and Success in Higher Education Act, or FINISH Act, alongside Republican Rep. John Katko earlier this year. The FINISH Act authorizes innovation grants that community, technical, and four-year colleges and universities can use to develop and scale evidence-based initiatives that help students graduate on time with a degree or credential. The bill also supports the Department of Education’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, in evaluating the effectiveness of these higher education initiatives, with the goal of creating an evidence base of what works for students.

This legislation is so important because there are a number of initiatives throughout the country that have demonstrated outstanding impacts on students’ graduation and degree completion rates, but they simply do not have the stable, long-term funding commitments that they need to scale-up and serve more students. That’s where the FINISH Act comes in. If a program can demonstrate, through a rigorous independent evaluation, that it is making a difference in the educational outcomes of its participants, it can receive the funds it needs to support more students and expand to more institutions of higher education in different parts of the country.

Take the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, initiative at the City University of New York. This comprehensive program connects students with an advisor to support them with their academic work and career opportunities, provides seminars covering topics such as goal-setting and study skills, assists with tuition costs to cover gaps in financial aid, and provides funds for transportation to classes and textbooks. This model ensures that students have the guidance and academic skills they need to succeed in school, while also preventing financial concerns from harming their ability to graduate.

The impact of the CUNY ASAP program has been exceptional. A rigorous evaluation of the program found that 40 percent of program participants had graduated with a degree within three years, compared to just 22 percent of control group students who were not enrolled in the program.

It is my hope that through the FINISH Act, we can significantly expand proven initiatives such as ASAP to institutions of higher education throughout the country. In doing so, we can bring hundreds of thousands of Americans out of poverty and into the middle class.

I am also so glad to see that President Biden has committed to providing significant funding to these types of evidence-based programs in his upcoming infrastructure proposal. His American Families Plan includes $62 billion to help students at community colleges and other institutions complete their degrees through evidence-based strategies. Just like with the FINISH Act, I hope that this provision can win support from both sides of the aisle, and I plan on working closely with my colleagues in both parties to make sure that this funding becomes a reality.

Sherrill represents the 11th District of New Jersey and is a member of the Education and Labor Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment.

Tags college graduation rates Education in America Higher education in the United States Joe Biden John Katko

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