Senators Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) recently introduced the ASPIRE Act, also referred to as the Access, Success, and Persistence in Reshaping Education Act of 2016 to the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The bill aims to increase access for low-income and marginalized students with an emphasis on closing the completion gap in institutions of higher education. The bill is self-sustaining in that it funds itself through the development of a system of penalties and corresponding completion grants awarded to qualifying institutions.
The legislation proposes that the Secretary of Education create two thresholds, one to determine the bottom 5% of institutions with the lowest percentages of Pell grant recipients; and the other to determine the bottom 5% of institutions with the lowest degree completion rates. Coons and Isakson suggest that the institutions with the lowest degree completion rates are high-access institutions for low-income individuals, while those with the lowest percentages of Pell grant recipients are low-access institutions. The sponsors suggest that after the thresholds are determined, and bottom 5% institutions are identified, institutions will be notified of their position in the bottom 5% and low-access institutions will incur a monetary penalty that will, in turn, be given to high-access institutions through a Completion Improvement Program.
Once notified of their ranking, institutions have 90 days to appeal to the Secretary of Education and prove one of three circumstances that would bump them past the 5% mark: a miscalculation of the threshold ranking, that the institution’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients when averaged for the past two years in addition to the current academic year places it at or above the threshold, or if the percentage of Pell Grant recipients for the current year is sufficiently high as determined by the Secretary.
Institutions that do not successfully appeal will be required to develop a plan within at least a year of notification for how to rise above the threshold. Low-access institutions will then have to pay a penalty in an amount determined by the number of Pell grant recipients that will need to enroll to rise above the threshold mark. Institutions will not be allowed to pay penalties with institutional federal based aid or through increased tuition costs. High-access institutions will receive grant funding equal to that of the institution’s “Pell Weight,” which is a percentage determined by dividing the institution’s Pell enrollment for the fiscal year by the total Pell enrollment for the fiscal year. Grant funding is made available through the creation of a Completion Improvement Program and awarded through the Department of Education (ED), as proposed in the Act. An institution cannot receive more than $2M of Completion Improvement funding for any given fiscal year.
The funding received by high-access institutions can be used in a number of ways to improve opportunities for low-income and marginalized students. Some of these options include: investment in Federal work-study programs, academic advising and support services, expansion of remedial and accelerated course offerings, increased loan counseling services, and efforts to close completion gaps. The Secretary of Education can also award non-financial rewards to institutions that have a record of efforts around college affordability, attendance, and success for low-income students. Examples of non-financial rewards include some leniency around standard reporting requirements, receiving extra points in ED grant competitions, receiving preference for experimental sites, and waiving disbursement delays.
Institutions that are unable to rise above the threshold for college completions rates after four years of receiving funding will have to start returning funding. As outlined through the bill, the Secretary of Education will only reward those institutions that can provide a means for improvement through recordable measures of success over a span of six years. These institutions will be penalized 25% of funding for the fifth fiscal year beneath the threshold, 50% of funding for the sixth fiscal year, and will no longer be eligible for funding the seventh year. These penalties will be used to continue to fund the Completion Improvement Program. The Secretary holds the right to waive any penalties at any time if they are deemed harmful to the student body.
Finally, the bill proposes the creation on an online best practices platform, where successful institutional outcomes can be recorded for future use by institutions. However, prior to implementation, we cannot know for sure if this specific system of penalties and rewards will create an atmosphere where we can truly determine best practices for closing the completion gap. Only through careful feedback loops and program evaluation after the Act is operationalized are best practices likely to be determined. Activities outlined through the Completion Improvement Program sound promising because they encourage measurable outcomes. However, the scope of such measurable outcomes may need to expand to encompass more difficult-to-measure, but important improvement outcomes such as mental health services or peer-based support.
The ASPIRE bill sponsors are prepared for it to be enacted during the 2017-2018 academic year. The bill is backed by such higher education advocates as Education Trust, Education Reform Now, and the Institute for Higher Education Policy.