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Aided by a White House strongly supportive of vulnerable-student success, Education Secretary Arne Duncan accomplished a great deal for low-income students during his tenure.
But not every initiative has been a success.
First, let me highlight four particularly noteworthy areas of achievement.
At the top of the list, the Pell program has grown substantially under the secretary’s watch; with the help of his team, approximately four million more Pell eligible students receive these grants.
The amount of money available for individual Pell recipients has increased as has the overall government expenditure. The improved and pre-loaded FAFSA form has contributed to this growth by encouraging more low-income students applying to college. Without access to these grants, many low-income students would not be able to afford post-secondary education, whether an AA degree, a BA/BS degree or a certificate program. The Pell expansion also speaks directly to the early stated and continuing goal of the president to get more and more individuals to and through post-secondary education to augment our nation’s educational attainment level by 2020.
Second, the secretary and his team moved to direct lending of government loans, taking out the middle people (i.e. banks) in the process. This dramatic shift was designed to save money previously siphoned off to the lenders, to make the process easier for students and parents to get loans in the first instance and to provide better benefits at the back end in terms of repayment options, with the government having more student-friendly provisions including forbearance, deferral, forgiveness, and income based repayment programs.
Third, the secretary has created a data-driven culture, in which information about what is actually occurring in the trenches has an increased role in conversations and decision-making. Quality data are hard to gather and some of the information collected isn’t sufficiently robust. But, with the most recent data dump, we have more and more information about low income students; we have Pell grant recipients’ retention and graduation rates, the amounts they borrow for their education, their default rates and their estimated earnings 10 years out. We can criticize, both in terms of their accuracy and completeness of the data, but these data are a critical step toward separating myth from reality.
Fourth and often unheralded, the secretary and his team have focused on improving school counseling. These counselors are the gateway for many low-income students accessing higher education. This means that these individuals need quality professional development; they need time in their days to focus on college access rather than disciplinary work or other administrative tasks; they need to understand the value of “fit” in terms of collegiate placement, which requires understanding not only financial aid options but also what distinguishes colleges and universities from each other.
These individuals need a manageable caseload, which is not 400 to 1. But here’s the key: these school counselors can guide students who are college bound to take the needed tests, register for the critical courses, complete the needed distribution requirements, and file the FAFSA. Best of all, they can provide their charges with a deep belief in their capacities to succeed when they graduate from high school.
Despite these initiatives, not everything done under Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s watch has improved the lives of low-income students.
In focusing on improved borrowing, not enough attention was paid to repayment systems and the role and price of loan servicers; the latter group has produced quite the quagmire. The department’s effort to use the increased data to create a college ranking system was a wasted effort in terms of time, money, human capital and lost good will.
It was a flawed notion from the get-go. More attention should have been paid to non-elite institutions (like HBCUs) that serve low-income students and less attention on elite colleges/universities and undermatching. The rooting out of under-performing for-profit institutions has not gone swimmingly; the efforts to investigate and address sexual assaults on campuses have been slow and understaffed
But in the spirit of seeing the glass as half full, Secretary Duncan has much of which to be proud with respect to his fostering the success of low-income students in higher education.
One of the challenges for the secretary is whether the changes installed will have “stickiness,” enduring into a new administration and beyond.
On that issue, the jury is still out.
Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College and a former Senior Policy Advisor, U.S. Department of Education.