Fortifying The Federal Presence in Retention
With New Legislation on the Table, Observers are Anxiously Watching to See if Federal Backing Can Help Higher Education Retain its Most Vulnerable Students
By Charles Dervarics and Ronald Roach
WASHINGTON — By and large, the statistics are downright depressing. A look at data from Black Issues’ annual Top 100 degree producers list shows that the traditionally White institutions ranked one through five in conferring bachelor’s degrees on Black students only graduated — on average — a mere 18 percent of those students within six years.
And contrary to popular belief,retention is a chronic problem at historically Black colleges as well.
Meanwhile, the American Council on Education recently reported that the college-going rate of minority students had risen 3.7 percent between 1996 and 1997.
So where’s the disconnect? Why do more African American students have access to colleges, but not the degrees they confer?
Students in the college pipeline face many potential roadblocks, including tougher high school graduation requirements, standardized tests and lack of money.
But once they reach college, says Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., young scholars encounter perhaps the most daunting obstacle of all: an unfamiliar, and potentially costly, atmosphere ripe for failure.
“There’s an unfortunate gap in services once students reach college,” says Fattah, who, along with Congressional Black Caucus leaders and the Clinton administration, has crafted a possible solution — earmarking federal funds for college retention programs.
“We have programs that help increase the pipeline of people going to college,” Fattah says. “Now we want to help them become college graduates.”
Fattah, a Philadelphia-based congressman, introduced a college retention proposal last fall, which has morphed into a $35 million program that is now part of the Clinton administration’s fiscal 2001 budget proposal.
While critics remain skeptical about the legislation’s limited scope, many higher education experts laud any federal effort to bring the issue — and some federal dollars to back it up — to the forefront.
But the possibility that the legislation will actually deliver checks to student service mailboxes in autumn 2001 may hinge on who takes control of the White House and Congress this election year.
Amid all this uncertainty, one thing is clear: National retention rates, especially among minority students, are dismal to say the least. If federal power can sway the higher education community and the officials who fund it to think of retention as an issue of access rather than an afterthought, then perhaps the legislation might portend a national movement to better serve higher education’s most fragile students.
The pilot program is in the president’s budget largely because of the efforts of Black Caucus members — including Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., senior Democrat on the House education committee, who worked closely with the White House to secure a slot for the idea in Clinton’s last education spending plan.
“What this college retention bill does is ensure that students who start the race towards their degree wind up finishing,” Fattah said last fall.
Twenty-four members of Congress have signed on to the bill, titled the William H. Gray III College Completion Challenge Grant Program of 1999. Fattah says the legislation is appropriately named after the head of The College Fund/UNCF and the former congressman from the district Fattah now represents.
“Rev. Gray has spent decades focusing on getting students to college and helping them thrive while there. It was only appropriate that this [legislation] be named for the former Congressman who continues to play such a significant role in the area of higher education,” Fattah says.
If enacted into law, colleges could receive grants for a variety of retention ideas — such as pre-freshman summer programs, support services on campus and, as a financial incentive for students, extra financial aid above the current maximum Pell grant — for the neediest students.
“It’s just common sense,” says Dr. Arnold Mitchem, executive director of the Council for Opportunity in Education, the national organization that supports TRIO programs.
Advocates are enthusiastic about the plan’s prospects, particularly the provision of seed money for what eventually may become a larger program. Yet there remain several obstacles to enactment in a politically charged year in which all U.S. House seats are up for grabs and both parties are jockeying for the White House.
Under the current proposal, the retention program would get funding under Student Support Services, a longtime component under the federal TRIO umbrella of outreach services. Each year, about 20 percent of Student Support Services dollars would go to the new program, called College Completion Challenge Grants. For fiscal 2000, support services received $182 million.
“It has a greater chance to succeed if it is placed in the Student Support Services program,” says Dr. Marshall Grigsby, senior aide to Clay on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. By placing it within a popular bipartisan program, he says, “There’s a good chance to get it adopted this year.”
Fattah and others acknowledge that the program, if enacted this year, initially would reach only a small fraction of at-risk students. The $35 million would fund up to 70 grants, according to Grigsby, and colleges also would have to provide a 30 percent match to any federal funds. To qualify for the program, colleges would have to participate in the Student Support Services program or have a similar activity on their campuses.
The pool of programs that would be eligible to compete for challenge grants is large enough to ensure a highly competitive grant process. In fiscal year 1999, 796 Student Support Services programs supported by the federal government operated at college and university campuses. Less than 50 were at historically Black colleges.
Timing, Strategizing and Politics
A new $35-million program would not appear likely to break the federal bank. But as is often the case in Washington, D.C., timing is everything.
Consider these factors: In the past three years, Congress has approved $40 billion worth of college tax credits, with more new tax breaks proposed this year. It also has increased the top Pell grant and created a new program, GEAR UP, to help middle- and high-school students prepare for college.
But all of those programs came with strong endorsements from the Clinton administration, which was able to wield power in tense, year-end budget negotiations with Republicans.
As the administration winds down, however, new programs will need stronger support across the political spectrum. So instead of creating a totally new program, Fattah, Mitchem and Clay strategized to fund the new initiative within an already popular activity — TRIO college access programs.
“After Clinton leaves office, no one knows what will happen with GEAR UP,” according to Mitchem, who says there was strong sentiment to place the initiative in an existing program. In effect, analysts note, there are few guarantees that programs strongly identified with the Clinton White House will continue beyond 2001, particularly if a Republican wins the election.
Another consideration is the House Republican leadership, which has frequently criticized the array of new Clinton education programs. While he has not endorsed the retention proposal, Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, has made it clear he wants to draw the line on new programs this year.
President Clinton “still sees the need to create new federal programs and new bureaucracies for proposals when existing programs could be used,” Goodling says.
But using TRIO for a college completion initiative may be the ticket to future support. TRIO is among “our Republican priorities,” he says, because it helps low-income students get to college.
Goodling’s support is critical, since Congress would need to pass some type of bill giving TRIO programs expanded authority to run college completion grants. Student Support Services programs currently cannot distribute financial aid grants, a critical component of the initiative, Grigsby says. Once the plan clears that obstacle, the key issue is to secure funds in a year-end education-spending bill.
Old Ideas — and New
Retention programs are not new. But federal support for such efforts may break new ground and focus on a longstanding problem — the breakdown of the educational pipeline at college.
In 1996, African Americans ages 25 to 29 were just as likely as Whites to have graduated from high school, according to an annual report by the American Council on Education. But data on college degrees showed no such similarities: 28 percent of Whites in this age group had attained a college degree, compared to just 14 percent of African Americans.
The key, most advocates believe, is to focus on services that prevent college students from dropping out.
“We’ve tried to create something based on successful models in isolated communities,” Fattah says of the new proposal. He and others say college completion grants should have three core components:
n a strong pre-freshman summer program for incoming students;
n higher grants for students in their first two years of college, so they do not rack up large debts as freshmen and sophomores; and
n intensive support services to help keep students in school.
According to most advocates, these ideas are not new. In fact, Mitchem recalls working on similar retention programs in Wisconsin back in 1970. “I don’t need a lot of research to tell me what works. New students with a pre-freshman program and support services do better in college.”
Data also show that most colleges face retention problems, and the issues are even more acute for students of color. In fact, Fattah, one of the GEAR UP architects, began this latest effort after acknowledging problems in his home state.
In Pennsylvania, only 24 percent of entering freshmen graduate with a baccalaureate degree after five years, he says. And college completion rates for African Americans and Hispanics are generally lower. “For African Americans, it’s a very significant problem,” Fattah says.
Nationwide, 25.9 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges do not return to school the next academic year, according to a recent report by American College Testing (see related story, pg. 27). This rate has increased slightly compared to a decade ago, and the problem also is most acute among average achievers and those facing multiple obstacles. At highly selective colleges, the dropout rate is 8 percent, ACT says. But rates at less selective institutions range as high as 35 percent, and the dropout rate is nearly half at open enrollment institutions.
Fattah says some of the most likely reasons for dropping out include grade point averages under 2.0, delayed entry into college after graduating high school, no previous college experience within the student’s family and full-time employment while attending college.
One way to address the employment issue is to help students with more grant aid beyond the current maximum Pell grant of $3,300 a year. Longtime observers may think of this as a “front-loading” proposal, an idea popular in the early 1990s: Provide students with additional aid early in their college careers so they can focus exclusively on academics.
“It’s separate from front-loading, but there are certain overlapping ideas,” Grigsby says. Unlike some front-loading plans, the new proposal would not take financial aid away from juniors and seniors – it simply would provide extra funds early in a college career, he says. Colleges also would have the flexibility to provide higher grants after the sophomore year, provided that upper classmen also are at high risk of dropping out.
“We’d like to help as many people as possible from becoming college dropouts,” Fattah says. Given the need for a skilled work force, he adds, “The idea is to help students and support society’s needs.”
A Larger Federal Role in Retention
A number of higher education policy experts eagerly embrace federal government expansion into the college retention arena. Dr. Lawrence E. Gladieux, the former executive director for policy analysis of the College Board, says federal policy in higher education since the 1960s has largely focused on expanding access and, more specifically, student financial aid. Yet policymakers now are beginning to think of retention as part of the access issue, according to experts.
For example, the National Center for Education Statistics, following the mandate of the Student Right to Know legislation that was incorporated into the 1992 Higher Education Act reauthorization, is requiring colleges and universities to disclose their six-year graduation rates of students in four-year programs. The reporting requirement takes full effect in 2003, when schools will disclose graduation rates of students who began college in the fall of 1996, according to U.S. Department of Education officials.
The possibility that the proposed retention program could foster innovative approaches beneficial for all students also has many in higher education watching progress of the legislation closely.
“We need to do a better job helping students once they have enrolled in college to persist and complete their degrees. Again, the TRIO programs provide support here. But public policy, federal in particular, has focused too narrowly on access to the system. More attention and incentives should be directed at persistence among students who are economically and academically at risk,” Gladieux said in testimony before the U.S. Senate last month.
“The Clinton administration has put a useful spotlight on this issue, calling for … College Completion Challenge Grants to help colleges retain low-income students. In short, financial aid is critical, but it’s not enough. Complementary strategies are needed to equalize college opportunities,” he added.
Visit our Web site, www.blackissues.com, to view a list of the Student Support Services programs.
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