As tuition rates at colleges and universities continue to increase, affordability remains a barrier for students looking to earn a postsecondary degree.
In an effort to reduce financial stresses, College Promise—a campaign aimed to eliminate the cost of tuition and fees—emerged.
Through a partnership with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in 2019, College Promise worked to adjust the “one-size fits all” model to target more specific student populations.
As part of their “Depicting the Ecosystems of Support and Financial Sustainability for College Promise Populations” initiative, research teams designed College Promise programs to meet the financial needs of five groups including first-generation students, youth in or aged-out of foster care, students with disabilities, student-parents and students needing academic support.
After years of development, the teams presented their findings during the College Promise and ETS hosted “Expanding Promise Symposium,” that took place on Wednesday.
“We know there are many millions of these students that we are serving and we want to do a better job,” said Dr. Martha Kanter, CEO of College Promise. “We know that new financing models and strategies are sorely needed for promise programs and their partners to dramatically improve the transitions to, through and beyond college.”
Beginning with first-generation students, who represent 35% of undergraduate students within the United States, the research highlighted five barriers including return on investment, work and home commitments, culture capital and navigational skills, bureaucratic structures and disparities in educational attainment.
To combat these issues, Adnan Bokhari, chief operating officer of the National Immigration Law Center, proposed implementing nationwide broadband and portable Wi-Fi as well as offering soft skills development and paid internships opportunities to improve career readiness.
Financially, there first must be an overall mind shift change to a “we can, we must, now” approach, he said.
“If the pandemic has taught us one thing or shown us one thing, it is that when we know what is at stake, we are willing to put the resources behind it and make it a priority,” Bokhari added. “We got many vaccinations developed in record time. We need to look at our first-generation college students with that level of urgency or some sense of urgency.”
He also recommended multi-year financial commitments, developing partnerships with the private sector, strengthening existing resources and making funding unrestricted.
To assist youth in or aged-out of foster care, who often face difficulties navigating the college process, the team highlighted the need to establish targeted campus programs to address basic needs, offer social and emotional support as well as partner with local child welfare agencies.
At the federal level, Dr. Angelique Day, associate professor of social work at the University of Washington, called for the passing of the Fostering Success in Higher Education of 2019 and expansion of the Pell grant limit from 12 to 14 semesters.
In addition to paying the cost of tuition, students with disabilities face bills for medication, equipment, therapy and transportation. Institutions also take on the costs of staffing, technology, auxiliary aids and services and campus accessibility.
Richard Allegra, associate director of education and outreach services at the National Center for College Students with Disabilities, echoed the need to increase federal Pell grants and develop more available scholarship opportunities.
“Because of their disabilities, some students need to go to school part time,” he said. “They are not able to carry a full caseload. If they go part time then their funding is cut to part time. We really encourage policymakers to be looking at those kinds of policies to enable a person, because of their disability, to get full funding.”
Student-parents—who represent nearly four million undergraduates—also face additional financial barriers due to childcare costs.
Beyond investing in wraparound services, Dr. Nate Johnson, owner and principal consultant of Postsecondary Analytics LLC, suggested using current stimulus funding to better support student parents.
Lastly, to improve the “ecosystem” for students needing academic support, institutions must reevaluate placement testing, offer high quality orientation and invest in data systems to improve advising.
Though many presenters highlighted the need for federal and state government financial support, philanthropies also play a role due to their ability to create visibility, connections and policy advocacy.
LaVerne Srinivasan, vice president of national programs at Carnegie Corporation of New York, said to ensure education is “front and center,” there needs to be a reliance on local communities and institutions.
“We know a lot about what works,” she added. “We know a lot about how to meet the diverse needs of students but we have to have the resolve to do it. I think we have to be unequivocal and determined in order to get the outcomes that we want for these populations of students who have long been historically and continuously underserved.”
Sarah Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.