Before U.S. House Subcommittee, Experts Urge College Degree Completion Time Reduction

WASHINGTON – In order to make college more affordable and graduate more students, states and institutions should adopt innovative practices that lessen the time it takes to earn a degree and embrace finance structures that are tied to completion.

Those were some of the major points made Wednesday during a congressional hearing titled “Keeping College Within Reach: Exploring State Efforts to Curb Costs.”

“There’s going to be a need for a new approach to higher education finance,” said Scott D. Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) and one of four witnesses who testified Wednesday before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training.

“The bottom line is there simply won’t be enough money to go around,” Pattison said, citing ongoing fiscal challenges being faced by states. “Now more than ever, public higher education, every level of state government, local government, the federal government will need to work together to improve access and performance, while spending resources wisely and efficiently and figuring out how to cut costs.”

 

While no one at the hearing disputed the need to make college affordable, differences emerged over what role the federal government should play in making that a reality.

From the outset of the hearing, those differences largely ran along partisan lines, with Republicans railing against increased federal regulations and higher education subsidies and Democrats emphasizing the need for diversity and highlighting the role of minority-serving institutions, or MSIs, in delivering affordable education.

“Clearly there is a problem that needs to be addressed, but it cannot be solved solely at the federal level with Washington bureaucrats acting as master puppeteers,” said U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and chairwoman of the higher education subcommittee.

She lamented that, although federal support for higher education increased 155 percent over the last 10 years, tuition has continued to rise.

“In these fiscally challenging times, if government subsidies aren’t producing more affordable education in the current system, we cannot just keep writing bigger checks,” Foxx said.  “Instead, we need to look to states and postsecondary institutions for creative solutions to the college cost conundrum.”

Foxx’s comments stood in stark contrast to those of U.S. Rep Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), the senior Democratic member of the subcommittee, who touted several Democratic-led initiatives to deal with rising college costs. They included providing $36 billion in additional Pell grant funding through the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2010 and $2.55 billion in “targeted investments” for minority-serving institutions.

“It’s important to note that HBCUs and minority-serving institutions are some of the most affordable colleges and universities in our nation’s higher education system,” Hinojosa said.

He added that federal investments in higher education are “critical to student success.”

“This is especially true for low-income, first-generation college and minority students,” Hinojosa said. “At the same time, states and colleges and universities must do their part to keep college affordable.”

The witnesses provided several examples of what states and institutions are already doing to lower college costs.

Dr. Joe D. May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said his state legislated a seamless transfer process so that students seeking a four-year degree can finish their first two years of school at a community college where the tuition is less expensive–$3,000 per year versus an average of $8,000 in annual in-state tuition at a four-year public college.

“Thus, for the first time in the history of our state, two-year college advisers can actually encourage students desiring to transfer to complete the associate’s degree,” May said. “Prior to this legislation, advisors knew that if the student earned the associate’s degree that he or she would take more hours than needed and spend more dollars than necessary.”

Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a nonprofit that works with states on college completion matters, emphasized the need to speed up time to degree and redefine what it means to be a full-time student.

“If we think of a full-time student as 12 credit hours, they’re already on the five-year plan, not the four-year plan,” Jones said.

He also said the federal government should do more to disaggregate completion rate data for Pell grant recipients, part-time students and adult students.

Teresa Lubbers, Commissioner of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, spoke of some of the areas where Indiana has sought to reform higher education to bring down costs and increase completion.

One area is performance-based funding, where 5 percent of overall state support for institutions–$61 million in the 2011-2013 biennial budget—is tied to various performance measures that include overall degree completion and completion for at-risk students.

Chairwoman Foxx, a former community college president, said the examples the witnesses cited show that “we know the answer.”

“The challenge now is how do you offer incentives, help people see that it’s in their self-interest to do the things that (the witnesses) pointed out are being done,” Foxx said.