Early Childhood Education, Youth Counseling and Need-Based Aid Key to Boosting College Completion Rates

Early Childhood Education,John Michael Lee Jr. is the policy director at the College Board’s Advocacy & Policy Center.Early Childhood Education, John Michael Lee Jr. is the policy director at the College Board’s Advocacy & Policy Center.

The ambitious goals to increase America’s college completion rates will not be met unless significant investments are made to expand early childhood learning to the nation’s poor, improve counseling in middle and high schools, and steps are taken to control college costs and provide more need-based aid to students.

Those are among the 10 recommendations made in a new report released Wednesday by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center.

Officially known as the College Completion Agenda 2011 Progress Report, the report is meant to provide an annual snapshot of how close or far the nation is from reaching the College Board’s goal to increase to 55 percent the proportion of 25- to 34-year-old Americans who hold at least a two-year degree or higher by the year 2025.

The goal is in line with the Obama administration’s goal to make the United States the leader in educational attainment by 2020.

Currently, the college completion rate among 25- to 34-year-olds is 41.1 percent, the report states.

Based on recent slippage, neither the Obama administration’s 2020 goal nor the College Board’s 2025 goal will be met unless improvements are made in several key areas, said the report’s lead author, John Michael Lee Jr., policy director at the College Board’s Advocacy & Policy Center.

“Unless we reverse the trend, especially among our young men of color, we won’t reach the goal,” Lee said.

Specifically, Lee noted that the progress report found attainment rates for two-year degrees or higher among 25- to 34-year-olds slipped among all minority groups from 2008 to 2009: Down 0.6 percentage points to 19.2 percent for Hispanics; down 0.9 percentage points to 29.4 percent among African-Americans; and down 1.6 percentage points to 69.1 percent among Asians.

There was no change in the two-year or higher degree attainment rate among Whites, for whom the rate remains at 48.7 percent.

Overall, the nation’s two-year or higher degree attainment rate among 25- to 34-year-olds slipped 0.5 percentage points to 41.1 percent.

Lee said the recommendations in the new report will help reverse the trend, but added that the recommendations are largely reliant upon one another in order to be effective.

For instance, while broader investments in early childhood education may help boost academic and cognitive skills among children from low-income families, those gains will be lost if students don’t get access to effective teachers, counselor and college prep courses later on in their academic careers, Lee said.

“That’s why our recommendations cover the entire pipeline,” Lee said.

Some of the recommendations, such as broader access to early childhood education, will not result in higher college completion rates for years to come, Lee said. However, other recommendations in the report could result in more immediate gains, such as recommendation No. 7: to provide more need-based grant aid.

“Even though Pell grants have increased, it’s not sufficient to what students really need to go to college,” Lee said, noting that college costs also have risen over time.

The report also notes that average family income has been declining over the past decade, down 16 percent for low-income families and down 6 percent for moderate income families.

“It’s really something that has to be fixed all the way around,” Lee said, noting that state aid to colleges has been decreasing over the years, forcing students to shoulder more of the cost of college.

“If states continue to decrease the amount put in education, it will put the burden on colleges to make up those funds or cut programs,” Lee said.