New U.S. Department of Education Report Highlights Colleges Increasing Access and Supporting Strong Outcomes for Low-Income Students

Archived Information

New U.S. Department of Education Report Highlights Colleges Increasing Access and Supporting Strong Outcomes for Low-Income Students

March 24, 2016

As part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to helping all Americans complete a quality, affordable college education, the U.S. Department of Education today released a report highlighting the efforts of colleges and universities to promote access, opportunity and success among low-income students, and identifying areas of much-needed improvement. 

“For students from low- and moderate-income families, a college degree is the surest path to the middle class in our country. I applaud the colleges and universities that have taken measurable steps to open up this pathway and make it a successful one for students from all backgrounds. But we need these types of efforts to become the rule and not the exception,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.

Using Insights and Data to Improve College Performance

The report, Fulfilling the Promise, Serving the Need: Advancing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students, shines a light on institutions across the country that have a strong record of success when it comes to ensuring that low-income students are not just attending college, but are completing their degrees.  The report highlights schools that excel in providing Pell-eligible students with access to college, as well as schools with strong performance on measures of college success for students eligible for Pell Grants and recognizes the important role many community colleges play in serving more than 40 percent of our nation’s undergraduates.

The report is also a call to action for institutions with significant gaps between completion rates for Pell recipients and overall completion rates, as well as institutions that, despite positive outcomes, have not succeeded in enrolling a significant proportion of low-income students.

The report highlights the fact that many similarly situated colleges and universities have divergent outcomes on key measures of college success and access.  A key takeaway from this report is that the actions of colleges and universities matter and that institutions of higher education can do more to help Pell students on their campus reach their educational goals and career aspirations, even in an era where the demands on colleges are great and the resources are limited.

Using data available in the College Scorecard, and incorporating the findings of analyses by outside organizations focused on student success, this report focuses mostly on four-year colleges. The data file is available here.

Accelerating Progress on College Access, Affordability, and Success

Since the beginning of his Administration, President Obama has worked to ensure more Americans have the opportunity to get a quality, affordable higher education, with promising results—more students are graduating college than ever before.  But many American families still feel that college may be out of reach. 

This Administration has made historic investments that have made college affordable for more Americans, particularly those from low- and moderate-income families. With more students accessing financial aid to attend college, Pell grant recipients have grown to be nearly 40 percent of all students and the maximum award has risen by more than $1,000. This year, the bolstered Pell program reduced the cost of college by an average of $3,700 for 8 million students. Coupled with the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), which provides up to $10,000 over four years of college, the Administration has doubled investments in grant and scholarship aid.  This year, the AOTC will cut taxes to help families pay for college by over $1,800 on average for nearly 10 million low-income and middle class families. The Administration has also created pilot programs that would expand Pell Grant eligibility to help high school students get a jump start on college coursework through dual enrollment programs and to help some incarcerated individuals prepare for reentry as contributing members of their communities. To help more students access the over $150 billion in federal financial aid available, this Administration has simplified and streamlined the FAFSA, cutting down the time it takes to complete by two-thirds – to 20 minutes. Starting on October 1, students and families will be able to access the FAFSA three months earlier, which allows them to have a more reliable understanding of college costs around the same time that they are searching for, applying to, and even selecting colleges.

The Administration has also taken action to empower students and families to make better college choices by providing critical information about college costs and value through the redesigned College Scorecard. In addition to the work of the Administration, others need to do their part. States must make the necessary investments in colleges and universities needed to keep college affordable and serve students well. And Congress needs to do more to strengthen and further support access, affordability, and completion.

Colleges and universities also have a shared responsibility to expand access to all students and offer targeted supports for low-income students. Already, more than 700 colleges and universities and their partners have made commitments in support of expanding college opportunity under the President and First Lady’s call-to-action, showing the powerful potential of collective action across the country to help students access and succeed in college. These commitments to increase the number of college graduates, enhance college readiness through K-16 partnerships, improve access to highly trained school counselors, strengthen STEM education, and expand access to education already have and will continue to reach hundreds of thousands of students in the coming years.

"For us to thrive as a diverse democracy and for individuals to achieve their dreams of success, higher education must fulfill its promise of providing opportunity to all students, regardless of their race, gender, or income level. That opportunity means access, but getting into college is not enough. It’s getting in and getting through that matters. There are remarkable institutions around the country succeeding at making access and success a reality for low income students. We need to learn from their leadership and spread the word about practices that work," said U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell.

Today’s release of the report will complement efforts to accelerate the momentum to strengthen college performance at all corners of the country. Secretary King and Under Secretary Mitchell will convene college presidents, trustees and campus leaders from across the nation, including several who are included in the report, at an event titled, Championing Completion: Improving College Outcomes for Pell Students. The event, hosted by the U.S. Department of Education will celebrate the promising and proven practices developed by these institutions to advance success for low-income students, and encourage broader conversations among the field to accelerate this work.

Key Administration Proposals to Support Access, Affordability, and Success:

  • 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. Instead, they 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 increase of $300 in the Pell Grant awards of students who take 15 credits per semester in an academic year. The bonus would encourage students to take the credits needed to finish an associate 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 likely with less student debt. This proposal would help an estimated 2.3 million students next year as they work to finish their degrees faster. 

Key Administration Proposals to Support College Access and Success:

  • Rewarding colleges that successfully enroll and graduate students from all backgrounds. The College Opportunity and Graduation Bonus program would recognize and provide a bonus to high-performing colleges that enroll and graduate a significant number of low- and moderate-income students, as demonstrated by high graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients and low cohort default rates, and encourage all institutions to improve their performance.
  • Making two years of high-quality community college, or two years at an HBCU or MSI, free for responsible students through America’s College Promise, letting millions of responsible students earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree and the skills needed to succeed in the workforce at no cost. America’s College Promise would create a new partnership with states and would require everyone to do their part: Community colleges must strengthen their programs and increase the share of students who graduate, states must invest more in higher education and training, and students must take responsibility for their education, earn good grades, and stay on track to graduate.
  • Ensure Pell Grants keep pace with rising costs by continuing to index the Pell Grant to inflation beyond 2017 with mandatory funding to protect and sustain its value into the future. The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act signed by the President increased the maximum award by the Consumer Price Index from 2013 to 2017. Without permanent CPI indexing, the purchasing power of Pell will erode, making it harder for students and families to afford college. Indexing the Pell Grant means that, compared with current law, the maximum Pell Grant award $1,300 in the 2026-2027 award year, resulting in larger awards for 9.2 million students.
  • Second Chance Pell Pilot Program tests new models to allow incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and pursue postsecondary education with the goal of helping them get jobs, support their families, and turn their lives around. Through this pilot program, incarcerated individuals who otherwise meet Title IV eligibility requirements and are eligible for release, particularly within the next five years, could access Pell Grants to pursue postsecondary education and training.