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Obama Agenda Focuses on Degree Completion

Advocates applaud $2.5 billion college retention proposal, but say insufficient financial aid is barrier to degree completion.

President Obama’s proposed $2.5 billion college access and retention initiative holds considerable promise for low-income students of color, many officials say — provided Congress and the higher education community agree to the plan.

In his fiscal 2010 budget, the president called for spending an average of $500 million annually over the next five years on access and retention, part of a goal to help the United States become the leader in college graduates worldwide. The proposed Access and Completion Incentive Fund resonates with many education leaders, despite concerns about how to implement the initiative.

“Getting in to college is only half the battle,” says Rich Williams, higher education advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “Getting to graduation can be a huge hurdle and this budget proposal will help low-income students overcome the odds to succeed.”


The Education Department describes the new initiative as a federal-state partnership to implement and study effective retention services. Currently, only about half of college students graduate within six years, with substantially lower success rates for economically disadvantaged students.


While the federal government has student aid and other initiatives that promote access, there is less attention focused on keeping students in college.


“Traditionally we only talk about access. That ignores the fact that low-income students often don’t complete degrees,” says Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, a Washington, D.C., research organization. The new plan, he tells Diverse, “puts degree completion on the agenda.”


Some colleges and universities have active retention programs, including early warning systems to help failing students and summer bridge programs that provide an early introduction to college life for first-generation students.


Yet in today’s economy, he says, “These programs struggle for funding.”


The Obama proposal has run into some opposition on Capitol Hill, however. At a recent hearing before the House Budget Committee, Education Secretary Arne Duncan faced questions about the cost and structure of the plan. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., senior member on the budget panel, said it would duplicate two new initiatives in last year’s Higher Education Act bill, including a Project GRAD program, which is part of a set of K-12 initiatives designed to close the achievement gap. He also criticized the administration for proposing the $2.5 billion as an entitlement similar to Social Security, even though it may last only five years.


“Why would the administration use such tight resources on a duplicative program?” he asked, adding that he found fault with a plan to create and end a new entitlement program within five years.


“It doesn’t make sense from a budget standpoint,” he added.


Thomas Skelly, budget director at the Department of Education, said the entitlement approach would guarantee funding without having to rely on the often challenging task of securing annual appropriations from Congress. “The idea is for states to have an incentive for students to complete college. Five years is better than one year if you’re looking at a long-term plan,” he said.


Duncan also told lawmakers it is critical to graduate more students once they get to college. “We used to lead the world in college graduates. We’ve stagnated and a host of other [countries] have passed us by.”

Retention programs are not new for minority-serving institutions, and many have offered services for years. At Spelman College, all freshmen receive a faculty member adviser for their first year of college. More than 40 faculty members are trained to provide advising to a group of 12 to 20 students, says Dr. Desiree Pedescleaux, dean of undergraduate studies. Students also take a half-credit class, First-Year Experience, taught by their faculty adviser.

“The goal is to get them acclimated to college life,” she tells Diverse. A Student Success Center also links Spelman students to appropriate tutoring, and an early warning system alerts the college about students struggling in their courses.

This attention seems to have paid off, as Spelman reports that 90 percent of freshmen return for their second year of college. Graduation rates also are high. Among freshmen who entered in 2002, 76 percent graduated within six years.

Given the challenges of keeping students in school, a new federal emphasis on retention is welcome, she says. But, she adds, financial aid remains the most significant barrier to success for students at Spelman and other HBCUs.

“I’m astounded when students say they work two jobs while going to school,” she tells Diverse. “Our students don’t leave for academic reasons. They leave for financial reasons.”

Others agree that retention programs can succeed only hand-in-hand with financial aid and pre-college outreach activities.

“We need financial aid and we need retention programs,” says Dr. Watson Scott Swail, president of the Educational Policy Institute in Virginia Beach, Va. Yet even with an extra $500 million a year for five years, the federal government may be hard pressed to make significant inroads on graduation rates.

The government already spends more than $1 billion annually on TRIO and GEAR UP programs but only serve a fraction of those eligible. “Spread across the country, the amount of money is miniscule,” Swail tells Diverse.

However, the federal government can use the five-year, $2.5 billion program to support best practices and innovations. “The idea to use it as an incentive and as research is entirely appropriate,” he says.

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