Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Hearing on, “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Opportunities to Improve Student Success”

August 10, 2015 · by mlivolsi · Spark Notes

Prepared by: Michelle Cravez (

Harrison Wadsworth (
On Wednesday, August 5, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing, “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Opportunities to Improve Student Success.” It was the eighth hearing regarding HEA reauthorization.

Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN); Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA); Johnny Isakson (R-GA); Susan Collins (R-ME); Bill Cassidy (R-LA); Michael Bennet (D-CO); Tammy Baldwin (D-WI); Christopher Murphy (D-CT); and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

• Stan Jones, President, Complete College America
• R. Scott Ralls, President, North Carolina Community College System
• Timothy Renick, Ph.D., Vice Provost and Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Success, Georgia State University
• Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, Ph.D., President, Young Adults and Postsecondary Education, MRDRC

Chairman Alexander opened by explaining that the focus of the day’s hearing was to figure out if there was a way for the Federal Government to help more students finish college. He said, “Few can afford to be stuck with debt and no degree, but that is what’s happening to far too many college students.” The chairman said that students who need to take remedial courses to catch up to their peers face one of the greatest barriers to timely graduation. He noted that research shows that students who consistently enroll full-time are most likely to graduate, but that the majority of so-called full-time students are not taking enough credits each semester to graduate on time. He said federal policy has emphasized access, rather than completion and that federal aid does not encourage students to complete their degrees as quickly as they can. He explained that students who take 24 credits in a year can get their full Pell grant amount, but that a student must actually take close to 30 credits a year to actually graduate on time. Second, he said, “Federal aid progress requirements seem to lack teeth: Students must meet a ‘satisfactory academic progress’ standard to remain eligible.” However, Alexander said these requirements are set by institutions and often do not require enough focused progression through a degree or certificate program. Third, he said federal aid is often used to subsidize studies unfocused toward a degree. Alexander said Congress needs to find a way to encourage institutions to prioritize and encourage student success without enforcing a federal mandate that “smothers institutions.”

Ranking Member Murray said she will continue to stay focused on making sure all students have clear pathways to success in higher education, and called for lowering college costs and removing financial aid policies that punish students rather than support and reward them. She emphasized ways to improve college completion rates, including making sure that students in high school are college-and-career ready. Murray called for better data on student outcomes and said higher education data ignores part-time and transfer students, adults who are returning to school, students in remediation, and Pell Grant recipients. She said it is important to know how these students are doing to make sure effective policy decisions are based on solid evidence. Murray spoke about incentivizing institutions to have support systems in place for struggling students and those from low-income backgrounds. She also advocated for structured pathways toward earning a degree.

Stan Jones said Complete College America found in their 2014 report, Four-Year Myth, that out of 580 public four-year universities, only 50 graduated 50 percent of their students within four years. The report also found that each additional year costs students more money. Jones shared some of the successes that Complete College America has witnessed and shared several strategies, or “game changers,” that he believes are instrumental in achieving success. First, he stressed the importance of transparency of information and criticized the Federal Government for not keeping track of Pell recipient graduation rates or data on remediation. Second, he suggested more remediation. Third, he advocated for structured schedules or Guided Pathways to Success (GPS) programs. Finally, he briefly mentioned performance funding as a financial incentive to prioritize student success.

R. Scott Ralls began his testimony describing the SuccessNC programmatic reforms and initiatives that have impacted student success across 58 North Carolina community colleges. Ralls said that students are more likely to find success when they continuously progress along coherent curriculum pathways. Second, he said students are more likely to succeed when they start with the end in mind but also have outcome milestones along the way. He said this is why it is important for more attention to be given to standards that measure institutional impact on student success. He said the federal definition of success leaves out many students who are not included in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) graduation cohort and that even though some students leave without an academic degree, many still end up with a valued industry credential. He said students are looking to gain a skill and a job and given the student population his schools serve, he stressed the importance of stackable certification. Furthermore, he recommended federal policy encourage and incentivize implementation of dual enrollment pathways connected with public schools, and the creation of a federal unit record system for Title IV eligible institutions that accounts for transfer students. Finally, he called for simplifying financial aid.

Renick shared with the Committee some of the successes of Georgia State University in helping improve student success. He discussed the schools Panther Retention Grant program provides one-time micro grants to students to cover the balance between what students can pay and the costs of their tuition and fees. Since 2011, the program has helped bring 5,300 students back into their classes. Renick also told the committee about the school’s Graduation Progression Success (GPS) Advising system that helps students avoid wasting credit hours by using predictive analytics to identify when students are making academic decisions that put them off track for graduation. He asked Congress help find new ways to incentivize collaboration and determine new ways to decide when and how students are given access to federal aid. He said rules on Satisfactory Academic Progress do not reflect today’s advances in student analytics. Finally, he asked Congress to continue to put pressure on predatory institutions and lenders.

Richburg-Hayes explained that research is beginning to lead the way towards improving student success solutions in four primary areas: comprehensive and integrative reforms, developmental education reforms, structured pathways, and innovations in financial aid. She spoke of City University of New York’s (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) that use comprehensive and integrative strategies to help at-risk students graduate on time. The ASAP program consists of requirements and messaging around attending college full time, student services, course enrollment or structured pathways, and financial support including financial incentives. Students in the ASAP program gradated at a rate of 18.3 percentage points higher than their peers in the control group. She said financial aid is another lever to help lower-income students succeed and stated that studies demonstrate that incentive based grants and innovation on traditional financial aid result in more students meeting academic benchmarks, a greater number of credits earned, and modest effects on GPA. She recommended HEA legislation give colleges and states incentives to replicate proven programs and to encourage innovation paired with research. She said more research needs to be conducted on structured pathway programs, year-round financial aid, and innovations in work study programs.

Chairman Alexander asked if Congress should change the federal requirement to qualify for federal aid from 12 credit hours per semester to 15 hours. Jones said changing the Pell Grant credit requirements would drastically change colleges and said schools already have made this change on their own and have seen success. He said he does not recommend changing the requirement to 15 credit hours but instead would incentivize students to meet this standard on their own. Ralls expressed concern over a 15 hour credit requirement, stating it could put many students who must work while enrolled in school at a significant disadvantage. Alexander then asked Renick for advice on how to deal with remedial education. Renick said it is clear that a one size fits all method does not work but that evidence shows that remediation works best when it is an add on to students who are already engaged in college level credits. He said disciplined based support has also been effective.

Ranking Member Murray asked Richford-Hayes to expand on the support services provided to students in the CUNY ASAP program. Richford-Hayes said there is one advisor assigned to 80 students, participants receive career counseling, financial support, and that some majors are given automatic course enrollment with block scheduling. Murray then asked Renick what services his college provides students. Renick said student services must use a combination of technology and personal contact. She then asked Jones and Ralls how data might better inform policy. Ralls explained many students in his system are part-time and some leave with alternative credentials which are recognized in the work force but not counted in IPEDS. He explained that IPEDS also doesn’t count community college students who transfer into four-year institutions. Jones stressed the importance of the Federal Government collecting information on Pell Grant recipient’s and veterans graduation rates.

Senator Collins said students who do not graduate are almost three times more likely to default on student loans. She mentioned that the director of a program at Eastern Maine Community College had once suggested to her to give students incentives to finish their programs in small amounts of loan forgiveness and asked the witnesses for their thoughts on this idea. Ralls and Renick both testified to the success of “microgrant” programs.

Senator Murphy noted that schools have “no financial incentive to graduate students on time, and may even have financial incentive not to do so.” He asked the panelists if they thought it would make sense for Congress to reform federal financial aid programs so that small financial incentives are provided for schools to invest in innovative programs that encourage college completion and success. Jones agreed with the Senator and said there should also be incentives in place for schools to graduate more low-income students as well as graduate students in a timely manner. Murphy then asked Renick if it was possible to build an accountability system that does not discourage schools from enrolling lower-income and at-risk students. Renick said Congress needs to find a way to “reward institutions and students who are making a difference against the odds.”

Senator Cassidy told Jones that as part of a bill in the last Congress, the Department of Education were required to publish Pell Grant recipients’ graduation rates. He said he has spoken with staff and that they do not plan to publish the rates until 2019 because they need to first start collecting data. He said the panelists have indicated that many schools already know their Pell Grant graduation rates, which makes him think there is proxy data already available and that this data can be provided to Congress without having to wait another four years. The panelists agreed that many institutions gather this data on their own for institutional decision making purposes but it is not available to the general public. Jones suggested the Committee send a letter to Secretary Duncan on the topic but Cassidy said this had already been done without success.

Senator Baldwin asked the panelists to weigh in on the College Promise Act that she introduced in July. She said the bill does not just ask states to invest financially but to also make reforms like expanding student support services, stressing career pathways, and improving remediation. Ralls said the Federal Government could encourage statewide agreements to help create more uniform structure across institutions and better serve students in several institutions throughout their academic careers. Renick offered one caution and said Georgia State had analyzed data and found a sort of “sweet spot.” He said students who have their tuition costs completely covered have lower completion rates than those who have a little skin in the game. He said he thinks the proposal is good but that the data they found shows that students who have to pay somewhere between seven to 15/20 percent of the total cost of school have more motivation.

Senator Bennet asked Renick to describe what the GPS program at Georgia State looked like from a students’ perspective. Renick explained the program maps a set of courses or a pathway for students to follow to graduate on time. Bennet then asked Renick how to reward students and institutions who are making a difference against the odds. Renick responded that Congress needs to incentivize this in a number of ways such as through federal grant programs. He recommended the Federal Government be more flexible in ways they assign federal financial aid and said the current system is a one size fits all model.

Senator Warren asked Jones if colleges have enough incentives to improve student success. Jones said they do not and said there should be incentives for schools to graduate more students and in a more timely manner so students incur less debt. She then focused her attention on for-profit colleges. Warren said it is critical that all colleges who benefit from federal money have incentives.

Chairman Alexander concluded the hearing by thanking the Committee members and panelists. He agreed with Sen. Warren, and said it is important that Congress spend its money wisely on higher education. Alexander announced that the next HEA reauthorization hearing will take place in September.

For more information about the hearing, including written testimony and an archived webcast, go to:

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