Under the guidance of a leading Washington-based higher education policy organization, the National Coalition for College Completion (NCCC), which is made up of civil rights organizations, businesses and student advocacy groups, was launched Thursday. A news media conference call announced the launch and it included higher education experts expressing concern about the challenges low-income students face as they try to complete their college education.
The coalition was convened by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) and is meant to give a voice to organizations outside of education.
The coalition’s formation comes at a time when a growing consensus of higher education policy research suggests that lower-income students are finding it more difficult to stay in college because of work or family obligations, as well as lack of financial support.
Call participants stressed that the coalition’s work will focus on two key areas: college affordability (including financial aid) and workforce alignment or ensuring that credentialed programs keep up with the demands of a rapidly changing workforce.
“We are here because we want to make sure that we, as a country, do not regress,” said Dr. Michelle Cooper, president of IHEP, who opened the conference call and delivered a grim assessment of the state of the American workforce.
Although 97 million jobs will require high-level skills, only 45 million Americans qualify. Should this pattern continue, Cooper said, this generation could be less educated—and less skilled—than the generation before it.
Coalition organizers expect that its diverse array of member organizations will nudge policymakers into finding workable solutions. Members currently include the Boys and Girls Club of America, CEOs for Cities, Campus Progress, The South East Asia Resource Action Center, and Student Veterans of America.
During the conference call, Bridget Marquis, program officer at CEOs for Cities, mentioned an example of how organizations can develop social and political incentives to increase college completion.
The Talent Dividend Prize, a joint effort by CEOs for Cities, the Lumina Foundation, and the Kresge Foundation, awards $1 million to the metropolitan area that exhibits the greatest increase in post-secondary degrees awarded over a four-year period.
Marquis said that increasing college attendance by just 1 percent would be worth an estimated $124 billion in additional personal income each year.
“Education is the single best bet we can make as a nation for economic prosperity,” she said.
But the conference call panelists said that the burden or responsibility still rests on colleges, which are still not living up to their end of the bargain.
Ayofemi Kirby, director of strategy and programs at Mobilize.org, said that low-income and minority students are finding themselves in an increasingly difficult bind: their earnings have steadily declined in the past two decades, all while colleges have increased tuition and cut their enrollments.
Low-income families must now contribute 72 percent of their incomes to send one child to college, according to The Education Trust.
Though more minority and lower-income students are entering college, fewer graduate, said Joe Bishop, who represents the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO.
“We recognize that, if the support isn’t there, once students get into college, their chances of succeeding diminish rapidly,” he said.
Maria Guerra, a third-year English major at San Jose City College, offered one illustration of this problem. Thanks to an assertive personality and a willingness to “barge [her] way into admissions offices,” Guerra was able to receive financial support and secure Pell Grant funding. But other students weren’t quite so lucky.
“I have seen many students become discouraged about their academic endeavors, and many of them quit school or postponed it indefinitely” because of lack of support, she said.
“The completion problem is not abut a lack of students desire to finish,” said Dr. Lorelle Espinosa, NCCC’s director. “It’s about the lack of support built into our current educational system.”
The coalition will work aggressively for mandatory orientation programs, which gives students a support network and helps them feel more integrated at their institutions, she said.
Another key focus will be increasing access to the Pell Grant program, which had been experiencing shortfalls in recent years. The organization’s website (www.finishhighered.org) gives visitors an opportunity to send a letter to their state representative to urge them to support the program.