Private Institutions Seek Role in Obama College Completion Drive

WASHINGTON – In seeking to join President Barack Obama’s ambitious college completion initiative, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), a leading U.S. association of private colleges and universities, devoted a significant part of its annual meeting to having administrators and faculty members explore and discuss the role private institutions can play in the drive to expand access and graduate more students.

Meeting to consider “Strategies for a New Future” as this year’s theme, the organization has focused on Obama’s initiative because NAICU supporters and officials say their schools are among the best equipped institutions to help reach those national goals.   

“Private colleges do better than public institutions to help graduate first-generation college students,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who addressed nearly 400 members of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities Tuesday at the association’s annual meeting.

Echoing the President’s call to produce the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, NAICU officials announced a pledge to join the college completion campaign through a collective initiative by their members along with the Council of Independent Colleges and Universities. NAICU counts nearly 1,000 institutions among its members.

NAICU officials said private colleges and universities play an unmatched role in bringing the most vulnerable students into the classroom and educating them. NAICU representatives are working with federal lawmakers to ensure private institutions are considered in legislation. The effort is also expected to expand best practices and programs at private institutions and allow NAICU members to set goals for marking their progress with at-risk students and graduation rates.

“The rising generation will be students of color and low-income students, and these institutions (private schools) have done well identifying and graduating them,” said NAICU President David Warren. “We need increased investment in these programs and to create national competition to help find students, institutions, and communities to find ways to lift up these populations.”

Student aid policies are key to the private schools, NAICU officials said, because they affect their ability to bring underrepresented minorities and low-income students into their institutions. Nearly 61 percent of first-generation college students earn bachelor’s degrees at private institutions, compared to the national total of 24 percent for all U.S. students, according to NAICU.

At St. Edwards University in Texas, the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) has brought students from farm worker families out of the fields and into the classroom for 37 years. During the first year for participants, students are supported with mentoring, advising, and generous financial aid packages that produce high retention rates and academic success, said St. Edwards President George Martin. Many students, he said, go on to lead distinguished careers in science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

Knox College President Roger Taylor said it is the independence of these institutions from state regulation that enables them to create programs that work to solve the overwhelming problems both public and private schools face.

NAICU members said they have been encouraged by the federal government’s push for investment in Pell Grants and federal work study programs and hope that their institutions will continue to compete “openly and fairly” in those grant programs.

But there are big challenges ahead for private institutions, many of whom have suffered large financial setbacks and seen their endowments shrink. NAICU leaders  expressed concern that pending federal legislation could further aggravate their precarious situations.

The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), currently stalled in the Senate, addresses many NAICU member concerns, but the conversion of federal student lending to a direct loan program is still considered to be placing too much administrative burden on small institutions. NAICU wants Congress to approve administrative support funds to help their members make the transition.

Also on the legislative horizon, a number of tax benefits that help families utilize tax credits and deductions for higher education have expired or are set to expire in 2010, said Karin Johns, NAICU director of tax policy.  

NAICU has urged Congress to extend these benefits because families need the assistance.