Fact Sheet: College Completion Drives Student Success

Archived Information

Fact Sheet: College Completion Drives Student Success

March 16, 2016

In today's economy, college completion is an essential part of getting the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in their careers and lives. That is why, since 2009, the Obama Administration has made historic investments in higher education that have helped ensure college stays within the reach of American families, including increasing the maximum Pell Grant award by more than $1,000, creating an American Opportunity Tax Credit of $10,000 over four years of college, keeping federal student loan interest rates low, and allowing borrowers to cap their loan payments at 10 percent of their income through the President's Pay As You Earn and related repayment plans. These efforts have helped our nation ensure more students are graduating college than ever before.

Despite this progress, to meet the President's goal of leading the world in college attainment—to move from 5th to 1st among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, we need to do more. Far too many students never complete their degree—with only 60 percent of those enrolled in a bachelor's degree program completing their education. We need to do more to ensure that students from all backgrounds are entering, effectively navigating, and successfully exiting the postsecondary education system, in order to buck the trend of one in 10 Americans from low-income families completing college by age 25, compared with half of Americans from high-income families. [  i  ]

Helping more students graduate with high-quality degrees can change the lives of students and strengthen the economic security of our country. In addition to giving families a clear path to the middle class, for many students earning a college degree on time means lower costs, as well as better long-run outcomes; students with college degrees are more likely to be employed, have good-paying jobs, and pay back their student loans on time and successfully. As the Administration works to increase college opportunity, value, and affordability, we continue to see signs of progress in expanding opportunity for low-income and disadvantaged students. In 2012-13, black and Hispanic students earned nearly 250,000 more undergraduate degrees than in 2008-09. [  ii  ]

In total, the Obama Administration has doubled the investments in scholarships, by increasing total aid available to students by over $50 billion from 2008 to 2016, and tax benefits by over $12 billion. The Administration has also invested $135 million in First in the World funds to seed and scale evidence-based innovation that improves student completion, reduces costs, and improves quality at colleges and universities.

Colleges and Universities Driving Innovation

Much of this work is being led by colleges and universities around the country who continue to demonstrate actions college leaders can take on their campus to support student success.

Georgia State University is a leading force in that work. From peer advising, to micro-grants that help low-income students afford to continue their education, to analytics that help advisers identify students at risk of dropping out, the institution has pioneered promising new practices in improving students' odds of completing college. Over the last decade, Georgia State has increased its completion rate by 22 percentage points. [  iii  ]

The institution plans to continue this and other work to improve its college completion rates in the coming years. In partnership with the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), and with nearly $9 million in funds won through the First in the World Initiative, Georgia State's predictive analytics and proactive advising programs have already helped it increase its semester-to-semester retention rates by 5 percent and reduce time-to-degree by almost half a semester. [  iv  ] Georgia State is working to continue growing those numbers to improve completion rates, particularly for low-income students. The UIA estimates that if all eleven of its schools have success proportional to Georgia State's, the institutions could produce 61,000 additional graduates in the next five years. [  v  ]

Driving Greater College Completion

For real and sustained progress, all parties must take responsibility for their roles: students, institutions, states, and the federal government. To that end, the Obama Administration has proposed a number of reforms designed to help students complete college, and to incent stronger efforts on the part of institutions needed to reform the higher education system so that it works better for students from all backgrounds. The policies outlined below, if adopted by Congress, have the potential to make college more affordable—and graduation more attainable—for millions of students.

  • Pell for Accelerated Completion would allow full-time students the opportunity to earn a third semester of Pell Grants in an academic year, enabling them to finish faster by taking additional courses year-round and better meeting the diverse needs of today's students. Many full-time students exhaust their annual Pell eligibility after just two semesters and, as a result, are unable to pay for summer courses and must wait until the beginning of the next academic year to continue their studies. This proposal will provide nearly 700,000 students next year who are making real progress toward on time graduation with an additional $1,915 on average to help pay for college and complete their degrees faster.

  • On-Track Pell Bonus would create an incentive for students to stay on track or accelerate their progress towards a degree through an additional award of $300 (effectively increasing the maximum Pell Grant) for students who take 15 credits per semester in an academic year. The bonus would encourage students to take the credits needed to finish an associates degree in two years (60 credits) or a bachelor's degree in four years (120 credits). Finishing faster means more students will complete their education at a lower cost and with less student debt. This proposal would help an estimated 2.3 million students next year as they work to finish their degrees faster.

  • First in the World has already invested $135 million in 24 institutions of higher education and consortia of institutions to test and scale evidence-based practices that improve college completion rates for low-income and disadvantaged students. Yet those institutions make up just 6 percent of the nearly 750 applications received by the Department. The Administration proposes another $100 million investment to help fulfill unmet demand for the program and to support the implementation and evaluation of large-scale reforms designed to improve retention and completion.

  • The HBCU & Minority-Serving Institutions Innovation for Completion Fund would recognize institutions that enroll a significant and disproportionate share of students from underserved backgrounds. Making substantial gains in increasing college attainment for low-income students and students of color across the country will require innovative and evidence-based, student-centered strategies for improvement. The $30 million proposed for this program would help to build the capacity of our nation's HBCUs and minority-serving institutions to implement those types of interventions on the ground.

  • The College Opportunity and Graduation Bonus would reward colleges that successfully enroll and graduate a significant number of Pell students on time, and encourage all institutions to improve their performance. Nearly $5.7 billion over the next decade would fund hundreds of institutions' most promising efforts to close the opportunity gap for low-income students, and encourage hundreds more to improve their performance.


  1. Duncan, Greg J. and Richard J. Murnane, eds. Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances. Russell Sage Foundation: 2011. [ Return to text ]
  2. Digest of Education Statistics. National Center for Education Statistics. Tables 320.20, 321.20, 322.20. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d14/tables/dt14_320.20.asp?current=yes, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d14/tables/dt14_321.20.asp?current=yes, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d14/tables/dt14_322.20.asp?current=yes. [ Return to text ]
  3. Kurzweil, Martin and D. Derek Wu. "Building a Pathway to Student Success at Georgia State University." ITHAKA S + R. 23 April 2015. [ Return to text ]
  4. "Collaborative Project Goal: Predictive Analytics." University Innovation Alliance. http://www.theuia.org/sites/default/files/UIA_predictive_onepagers.pdf. [ Return to text ]
  5. Ibid. [ Return to text ]