What it Takes to Bridge the Access and Success Gap for Lower-Income Students

At this time, higher education institutions, national organizations, and legislators across the country are advocating to double the Pell grant as Congress shapes its reconciliation package. This represents a transformative opportunity for institutions of higher education — community colleges, publics, and independents alike — to improve enrollment of lower-income students at a time when they continue to experience the most adverse impacts of the pandemic.

Low-wage jobs dried up during the pandemic, and millions of additional students and families entered poverty. In parallel, FAFSA completion rates dropped by 12% for seniors from the 2021 graduating class — and college enrollment plunged for 2020's high school seniors. 

While doubling the Pell grant represents a critical step, colleges and universities must also do their part with concrete efforts to ensure the thousands of talented students from lower-income backgrounds have a clear path to apply, enroll, and persist toward graduation. We don't have time to waste as the significant number of students who deferred on or delayed their postsecondary dreams are less likely to return to higher education the longer they wait to enroll.Dr. Eric F. SpinaDr. Eric F. Spina

As a Steering Committee member for the American Talent Initiative — the alliance of high-graduation rate institutions striving to graduate 50,000 additional low-income students collectively — I often speak on the imperative to reverse these downward trends. It is critical not only for individuals' lives but also to create more equitable and sustainable economic recovery from the pandemic.

As president of a university with a modest per capita endowment, I advocate that some strategies — like the ones that we have used at Dayton to increase Pell enrollment from less than 10% of the entering class a decade ago to 20% last fall — are possible for any school.

Here are three steps colleges can take to support, and ensure the success of, the students most impacted by the pandemic:

Be transparent about costs. College is a four-year investment. Yet, much of higher education continues outreach to students based on one year at a time. When unexpected costs arise, including hidden fees, it can force students to drop out. Like the one at the University of Dayton, a fixed net-price tuition plan can yield strong results. For us, record enrollment, retention and graduation rates — and student loan borrowing that decreased for students of every race and in every socioeconomic background. Under the plan, we have no extra fees and tell students upfront their costs for all four years.

Amplify support. While price is a significant barrier for lower-income students, it's not the only roadblock. There are confusing admission requirements and deadlines — which some colleges are working to address with free webinars, stronger partnerships with high school counselors, and more clarity about how they evaluate applicants. Challenges also persist when students get to campus, especially for those who are the first in their families to attend college. Our Flyer Promise Scholars program has built-in support in the form of "success professionals" — separate from academic advisors, counselors, or career service staff — to help students with any hiccup or barrier they face. It can be as small as checking in on a student who has missed a few classes, as personal as helping a student mourn the loss of a grandfather, or as crucial as securing on-campus summer housing for a student whose family is currently homeless. With this extra support, along with the built-in financial aid the program offers, Flyer Promise boasts a near-perfect retention and graduation rate.

Strengthen relationships to improve transfer. Most students enter community college with a plan to earn a bachelor's degree. However, according to ATI, just 14% reach that goal within six years. The rate remains low in spite of solid efforts to improve the transfer process — from UCLA's student-run advisory and advocacy groups to its transfer awareness training for staff. Improving transfer also requires stronger partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions. When the University of Dayton and Sinclair College created a new transfer academy, academic advisors, registrars, financial aid officers, deans, department chairs, faculty, and other administrators worked together for two years. The resulting program offers supports on both campuses, dual admission, more than 70 academic pathways, and the opportunity for students to join UD clubs and use facilities while at community college. A joint committee still meets regularly to review the program and address any issues that arise.

Improving access raises our sights for what is possible as we recover from the pandemic— as colleges and universities and as a nation. As we await federal action to double Pell that can dramatically expand opportunity, let's work together to do everything we can on our campuses to educate and launch low-income, talented students into brighter futures.

Dr. Eric F. Spina is president of the University of Dayton. He also serves on the steering committee of the American Talent Initiative and is vice-chair of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities board.