Posted June 13, 2013 by

Invest in the Success of Low-Income Students

Michelle Asha Cooper

Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., President of the Institute for Higher Education Policy

For several years, I have watched the higher education community engage in hand-wringing over strategies for improving the educational outcomes for low- and moderate-income students. At present, low-income students remain less likely to enroll and complete college, when compared to their higher-income peers. Given these trends, the attention being dedicated to these students is certainly warranted. However, long-standing efforts designed to improve the outcomes for low- and moderate-income students, such as the federal Pell grants and TRIO programs, are constantly being thrashed and called ineffective. This chorus of opposition is growing more and more audible. While there is a need to enhance these programs to effectively serve more deserving students, I do believe that it is not in our best interest to scrutinize the outputs of these programs, without simultaneously scrutinizing the inputs.

Investment strategists all confirm that if you want to benefit from an investment, you have to at least be willing to make one. At present, the two major federal college preparatory programs–TRIO and GEAR UP–invest over $1 billion annually and serve over 1 million students; the Pell grant program invests $34.5 billion and serves 9.4 million students (37 percent of all undergraduates). This is a modest federal investment for the number of students served with the current allocations. With that, the issue with federal programs targeted toward low- and moderate-income students is not that they are ineffective; instead they are not funded at a level that would produce a large-scale impact.

The federal government invests $141 billion for student financial aid combined (i.e., grants, loans, work study, and tax credits in 2010-11). Since most targeted financial aid program for low- and moderate income students make up one-fifth of the total budget, and the targeted college preparatory programs represent less than one percent, it is reasonable to expect modest outcomes for students. But many students who have participated in these programs would dare not call the outcome modest. For them, these programs were absolutely essential to helping them enter and succeed in college. In the case of Pell and TRIO, specifically, the best way to discern the impact of these investments is not through the use of advanced statistical procedures alone. It is also essential to hear the stories and testimonies of these students.

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Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington. D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization celebrating 20 years as a Champion of Access and Success for all students–with a special focus on underserved populations–by providing timely research to inform public policy decisions.

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