NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Targeting Student Aid

March 5, 2014

Making financial aid dependent on a student's college readiness could better target taxpayer dollars, says Isabel Sawhill, codirector of the Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities Project at the Brookings Institution.

Federal student aid has shot up alongside the rising cost of college tuition, with a total of $173 billion being spent in 2012-2013 on student loans, grants and tax credits. But are there more effective ways to spend this money?

  • Sawhill points to the fact that only 60 percent of students who enroll in a four-year college program graduate within six years, with success rates at community colleges even lower.
  • Drop-out rates indicate that many students may not be ready for college, an indication seemingly confirmed by the $2 billion spent annually on remedial education.
  • Only 26 percent of high school seniors are at or above proficiency in math, and only 28 percent in reading.
  • Of students enrolling in college in the 2003-2004 school year with a high school grade point average below 2.0, only 16 percent received a degree six years later.

Should Americans really be forced to foot the tuition bill for students who are not likely to make it through college? Sawhill points to three benefits from making aid conditional on college readiness:

  • Dollars would be spent on the students most likely and able to benefit from the funds.
  • Students would have an incentive to work harder in high school to reach a college readiness level.
  • Student learning would increase, as eligibility for aid would require actual academic performance, not merely high school attendance.

Sawhill does note a potential downside, as the funding structure could lock out a large portion of disadvantaged and low-performing students from college. She suggests starting reforms with a small-scale pilot program in a state to dole out Pell Grants based on high school achievement. The program could grant greater funds to the higher achievers and deny funds to the bottom 20 percent of applicants.

Source: Isabel Sawhill, "Target Aid to Students Most Likely to Succeed," Education Next, Spring 2014.


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