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Administrators at Alabama’s Bishop State Community College had a goal: Reenroll some of the 800 students who had recently completed some coursework but never finished their degree.

Victoria Perry, a counselor and adviser, was excited by the prospect of reaching students whose education had been disrupted. But she and her colleagues soon realized that without technology to aid them in identifying who those students were and the barriers they faced, the work would have to be done by hand.

And so a team of nine staff members from across the college began adding student after student to a shared, color-coded Google Docs spreadsheet —​​ a manual audit of more than 800 students who’d been gone for at least three consecutive semesters. The laborious process took Perry, a college employee of more than 24 years, away from her regular work and left the team with what felt like an impossible task that ultimately went unfinished.

The effort would have been helped by a proposed $9 billion in federal funding dedicated to completion and retention included in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. Advocates say the money could be transformative for colleges like Bishop State, which often lack the resources to give students the support they need, and people like Perry, who are trying to do this work without 21st century tools.

Though the proposed fund is backed by a scores of higher ed experts, it’s competing for funding against a multitude of other programs.

If it’s included in the reconciliation package, it could fund programs like Degrees When Due, the umbrella initiative organized by the Institute for Higher Education Policy that Bishop State was participating in to reenroll students. The initiative is designed to help the 36 million Americans who have attended some college but haven’t earned a degree.

It’s one of dozens of evidence-based programs that could be implemented at more public schools across the country if the completion money comes through from Congress.

Without funding, the work at places like Bishop State can only go so far.

Perry said the college reached out to about 200 students and reenrolled about 70. But the progress stalled at the beginning of the pandemic, and then the college changed internal systems that left staff members without access to much of the student information they needed to complete the audit.

Perry said she wished they’d had the money to invest in a system that could automatically analyze why a student left school and how many credits they needed to complete. Maybe, she said, the college could even acquire a program that could send students an initial email or text message to gauge their interest in returning. If they’d had a program like that, Perry said, the team might have been able to contact roughly 600 more students about reenrollment in this attempted audit alone.

“We weren’t able to tackle the vast majority of students because of technology,” Perry said. “It was just unbelievable. I was so excited when I first started out but it became kind of depressing because we couldn’t help them.”

Money from the college completion fund could be spent bolstering support services like advising and counseling; reevaluating remedial education policies; establishing emergency financial help for students in unexpected need; and making it easier for students to transfer. The program would run from the 2023-2024 academic year, through 2029-2030.

Piper Hendricks, director of communications for the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said the completion fund is not a “nice-to-have” piece — it’s essential. She said resources should focus on students of color and low-income students, who face greater hurdles in college access and completion.

The investment would not only help more people earn degrees but will aid the economy because more people “will be able to fill the needs of the knowledge-based workforce,” said Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

Still, the fund is a long shot. Advocates are pleading with lawmakers to ensure the program stays in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, but it is competing with broader federal health care and child care support for working families, as well as other higher ed provisions including free community college and an expansion of the federal Pell Grant program.

“We weren’t able to tackle the vast majority of students because of technology. It was just unbelievable. I was so excited when I first started out but it became kind of depressing because we couldn’t help them.”

Victoria Perry, a counselor and adviser, Bishop State Community College

Lawmakers are at odds over the total price tag of the package, and although it will only require 50 votes in the Senate, there are still some disagreements even among Democrats about cost.

Hendricks said that if Congress funds the program at a lower dollar amount, the reforms need to be even more tightly focused on historically disadvantaged students.

The funding is currently tied to a provision that would offer free community college tuition in certain states. Advocates say if the two remain tied, states that did not participate in the free community college program would be ineligible to apply for grants from the completion fund.

If funding doesn’t come through as a part of the reconciliation package, there’s still one more hope for it: New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, has introduced a separate bill to establish the completion program, with funding at $62 billion, the amount the Biden administration initially proposed.

Chandra Scott, executive director of Alabama Possible, said that 10 years down the road, a federal investment of this size could save a “stranded workforce” by helping people get degrees.

She’s talking about people who’ve diverted from the traditional high school to college to graduation pathway. They haven’t been prioritized, she said, and are often left “stranded in someone’s computer because we don’t have the right tools to process them at a fast enough pace.”

Systems like Bishop State’s still “look like something out of an 80s movie,” she said, and they are failing individuals who would likely be able to reenroll, earn a degree and achieve a greater level of social and economic mobility.

“In 10 years, we wouldn’t have the stranded workforce,” Scott said. “There will be people taking advantage of the opportunity the post-secondary credential gives them to better their families’ lives and break generational poverty.”

This story about college funding was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Olivia Sanchez is a higher education reporter. She previously covered local and state government for the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Sanchez earned a bachelor's degree in psychology...

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