Proposed law: Enroll more low-income students, or pay the price

ASPIRE act would establish deadline for institutions with lower percentages of low-income students

A bipartisan bill intended to improve college access and graduation rates would impose college-loan program penalties on institutions that perform poorly in these areas.

The federal government allocates approximately $180 billion annually in federal student aid and tax benefits to help low- and middle-income students, according to a report released by the bill’s sponsors, U.S. Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). However, there are currently no graduation or accessibility requirements for these funds.

The Access Success and Persistence In Reshaping Education Act, or ASPIRE, would establish a four-year deadline for the bottom 5 percent of institutions with lower percentages of low-income students (enrolled first-time, full-time Pell Grant recipients) to make efforts to raise numbers from that group.

In turn, schools that do enroll a significant number of low-income students would be eligible for up to $8 million over five years to support their efforts and improve student outcomes.

Penalized schools would have to develop improvement initiatives or risk paying an additional penalty and eventual loss of Title IV eligibility for three years.

“Ensuring that institutions have the right kind of incentives to actually serve low-income students and students who maybe have been underrepresented in our post-secondary education system is a really laudable goal,” says Jesse O’Connell, a strategy officer who works on models of finance and federal policy for the Lumina Foundation, a private organization dedicated to expanding student access to and success in postsecondary education.

While the Lumina Foundation does not comment on specific legislation, O’Connell also says such bipartisan efforts are encouraging because student outcomes and success need to be at the center of the post-secondary education system, and transcend political ideology.

Any funds received from noncomplying schools that gets redistributed to colleges and universities would set minimum graduation rates. These would be the standards for all four-year institutions participating in federal financial aid programs.

“Seeing proposals that have this level of specificity and granularity really shows that careful thought is being given to these issues, and that’s encouraging as we move forward on these broader, more all-encompassing efforts, particularly around the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act,” says O’Connell.

Coons and Isakson plan to refine the bill and include it in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, expected next Congress.

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