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Bill to Codify Postsecondary Student Success Grants Met with Support and Criticism from Scholars and Advocates

Legislators are looking to enshrine the Postsecondary Student Success Grant (PSSG) program, a student outcomes-centered federal effort, into law through new legislation this March. Although the effort has received support generally, some higher ed scholars and advocates have levied some criticisms and concerns about it.Dr. Jhenai ChandlerDr. Jhenai Chandler

The Postsecondary Student Success Act – a bipartisan effort that seeks to solidify the ongoing existence of the grant program, which gives funds to higher ed institutions striving towards improving student success, particularly for “high-need” students.

The PSSG – it was first funded in 2022 via the Consolidated Appropriations Act – recognizes and awards funds to institutions that propose to use the grant for evidence-based reforms and practices in pursuit of bolstering student participation, retention, transfer, and completion rates.

Efforts implemented by awarded institutions in prior years have included services such as counseling, tutoring, childcare, community-building activities, targeted outreach, financial assistance, technology provision, and transportation.

“By codifying the program, it gives institutions something to look forward to annually as a source that they may be able to tap, assuming they qualify, for much needed resources,” said Kelly Leon, vice president of communications and government relations for the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP).

The legislation has received support from organizations in higher ed and civil rights circles, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), the Association of Community College Trustees, the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), and Latino civil rights organization UnidosUS.

Cementing the program into law will make the existence of the higher ed support effort less uncertain, said Dr. Jhenai Chandler, senior director of college completion policy at TICAS.

“Codifying this program into law acknowledges and accepts institutional responsibility for student success, especially for our most underserved groups,” said Dr. Royel Johnson, an associate professor of higher education at University of Southern California (USC). “It secures its place in federal education policy, making it less susceptible to annual budget fluctuations or shifts in administrative priorities.”

The needs of today’s students – many are older, parenting, in rural communities, or have other responsibilities outside of school – are not going away, and cementing the program into law makes sure the PSSG is more permanent, said Tanya Ang, managing director for advocacy for Higher Learning Advocates.

“A focus on first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students — serving their needs is essential,” Dr. Marybeth Gasman, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education at Rutgers University, wrote in an email to Diverse. “We also need students to be supported not only in year one but throughout the entire time they are in college.”

Codification will also create new opportunities to increase funding for the PSSG, funding that is clearly needed based on the demand that institutions have demonstrated in applying for the program in the past, said Craig Lindwarm, senior vice president for governmental affairs for the Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU). 

Funding of the grant program in 2023 rose substantially to $45 million, an amount that looks to stay the same for this year’s congressional appropriations, according to two of the higher ed organizations that Diverse spoke to. 

“In the last round of funding, there were more than 100 applications and the department only had sufficient funds for just 10 awards. There's clearly so much more need that exists than there is funding available,” Lindwarm said. “We think that the introduction of this legislation is a great next step in building additional support in Congress to deliver the funding that's needed.”

The language of the bill carries over much of what the PSSG has already been doing but expands and changes some aspects. One of these changes has to do with which kinds of evidence-based reforms and practices institutions can propose.

Last year’s PSSG competition implemented a tiered evidence structure based on What Works Clearinghouse guidelines of moderate and strong evidence – to categorize the kinds of efforts presented. The bill, however, separates efforts into three tiers: those that show promise, those that measure impact and cost effectiveness, and those proven to bring about strong impacts for student success.

Dr. Mike Hoa Nguyen, an assistant professor of education at NYU, praised this inclusion of a requirement to evaluate work through rigorous research.

Though Chandler said she saw the merit of these evidence-based requirements, she voiced minor concerns about how such requirements could present barriers for small institutions with less capacity and resources.

“Because of the evidence-based criteria, [smaller institutions] might have some challenges being competitive. There are capacity challenges related to the research and evaluation requirements,” Chandler said. “We need to make sure that we're structuring this program in a way that the institutions who really need the funds are able to compete.

“We need to make sure that the community colleges [and schools with higher risk students] are aware of this fund and that they have the supports to be competitive, to apply and receive these much-needed dollars.”

Scholars also expressed some dissatisfaction with what the bill leaves out. Dr. Adrianna Kezar, director of USC’s Pullias Center of Higher Education, said that although the bill gives attention to individual student supports, such as coaching and advising, it does not seem to do much to review ineffective structural campus policies or improve faculty working conditions.

“Faculty's working conditions are students' learning conditions,” Kezar told Diverse.

Johnson expressed disappointment with how the bill’s definition of “high-need” students does not include students with foster care experience.

“Many of us have been working to raise awareness about the extraordinary barriers this group faces, which reduce college attendance,” he said. “This was particularly pronounced during the pandemic when we closed our campuses, not realizing that for many youths who have aged out of foster care, campus is their home. Their exclusion from the act exacerbates the invisibility this group experiences.”

Emmanual Guillory, senior director of government relations at the American Council on Education (ACE), pointed out that the bill’s current language on eligible institutions may leave out private higher ed schools. According to the bill, entities eligible for the PSSG are either public institutions of higher education, partnerships between nonprofit educational organizations and higher ed institutions, or consortiums of higher ed institutions.

Whether private schools are eligible under this law could use more clarity, Guillory said, adding that ACE has not yet taken an official stance on the legislation.

“You do have public HBCUs, public TCUs, public MSIs. But you also have private, non-profit HBCUs, TCUs that will identify themselves as private non-profit, and you also have MSIs that are private non-profit,” Guillory said. “It seems to not make a nod to that.”

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