Senator Coons Pushes College Access Bill – Bi-Partisan legislation seeks to up graduation rates


U.S. Sen Chris Coons

With the backing of Delaware State University and other reform-minded educational players, U.S. Senator Chris Coons joined Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) today in introducing legislation to incentivize colleges to expand access for low-income students and increase graduation rates for all students.

The Access Success and Persistence In Reshaping Education Act, or ASPIRE Act for short, will spur some of the nation’s more selective institutions to improve access for low-income students and will devote resources to help boost completion rates at institutions that serve disproportionately high numbers of low-income students.

Specifically, the ASPIRE Act gives more selective colleges with lower numbers of low-income students four years to boost low-income student enrollment or pay a fee to participate in the federal college loan program. High-access, low-performing colleges would have the option to get up to $8 million over five years to improve student outcomes. These resources — which are generated through the fees collected from schools that do not improve low-income student enrollment and will not come from new taxpayers dollars — are to be accompanied with new bare minimum completion standards, applicable to all four-year institutions choosing to participate in federal financial aid programs.

admissions_web“In today’s economy, access to higher education is one of the surest ways to provide students from all backgrounds a ladder to success,” said Senator Coons. “That’s why the federal government invests significant resources into helping low-income and first-generation college students succeed in college. Yet despite this investment, our higher education system is failing to deliver results for the students who need it most. Our graduation rates are abysmally low and too many resource-rich colleges have failed to expand access to students who come from low-income backgrounds. Our bill will address both of these issues by holding selective colleges accountable on improving low-income student access, and by providing resources to increase graduation rates at colleges struggling to support their high numbers of low-income students.  We can and must do more to address resources disparities and ensure colleges help all students access and complete a high-quality education.”

Delaware State University President, Dr. Harry L. Williams said, “At Delaware State University we are committed to retaining and graduating first-generation college students. This commitment is further evidenced by our steady progression on these most-important metrics and our partnerships with private foundations to expand our innovative efforts to retain and graduate our students.  The Completion Bonus Program within the ASPIRE Act further incentivizes institutions to redouble their efforts to boost retention and graduation rates to help make the United States #1 in college completion.”

Currently, the U.S. government spends roughly $180 billion each year in federal student aid and tax benefits to help low- and middle-income students — money that flows to universities with little to no strings attached. For example, the federal government doesn’t require colleges to meet basic benchmarks, such as making sure they actually graduate students or ensuring that their institutions are really accessible to all qualified students.  In addition to basic benchmarks, the federal government does a poor job targeting resources to where they are needed most.  Despite the significant federal investment in the higher education system, U.S. college graduation rates are currently among the lowest in the developed world. Click here for a full report.

The bill also rewards institutions that are already on the right track when it comes to access and completion by making additional competitive funding available for completion efforts, with priority for minority-serving institutions and HBCUs. Finally, it enables high-performing institutions on access and completion to apply for non-financial rewards, such as bonus points in federal competitive grants or a reduced regulatory burden.

  • The bill is completely self-financing, requiring no new appropriations.
  • The bottom 5 percent of institutions based on percentages of enrolled first-time, full-time Pell Grant recipients are given at least four years to improve access, or risk paying a penalty.  Penalties collected are then used to fund completion efforts.
  • The bottom 5 percent of institutions based on six-year graduation rates that choose to opt-in to the bill’s completion standards would receive significant funding and at least five years to develop and implement plans to improve completion, or risk paying a penalty and eventual loss of Title IV eligibility for new students for three years.
  • Under the bill, up to $200 million a year would be devoted to graduation efforts.
  • The bill would not prescribe improvement strategies—institutions must create their own plans.


Click here for the full bill text.

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