College degrees, not debt, will grow the economy - Albuquerque Journal

College degrees, not debt, will grow the economy

Sen. Martin Heinrich

For some students, getting into college and being able to afford it is enough. But for many others – particularly first-generation students, those from low-income families, and students of color – there are more obstacles to overcome between orientation day and graduation day. From help with transportation and housing, to academic mentoring, to navigating college requirements and staying on track, research shows these students benefit from personalized, comprehensive support.

That’s why I worked hard to secure the establishment of the first-of-its-kind College Retention and Completion Grants program in the latest version of President Biden’s Build Back Better Act that is advancing in Congress.

There has rightly been a focus on putting a college education within reach for more students. We are closer than ever to helping students more easily afford a college education through tuition assistance and a major increase to the Pell Grant, one of the most important tools to help many low- and middle-income students pay for school expenses. However, we also need to address the college completion crisis in this country.

While 86% of students graduated from high school in 2019, a proportion that has risen steadily for the past two decades, only a quarter of students entering public two-year colleges graduate within three years. In New Mexico, we have improved the percentage of our high school graduates who enter college. Still, only around 40% of first-time freshmen in the state enrolled in two- or four-year colleges completed their degree. Among Hispanic, Black and other students of color, as well as those from low-income families, graduation rates are even lower.

We need to do so much better than that.

President Biden campaigned on, and proposed, a College Retention and Completion Fund as part of his original American Families Plan. Now that we have included this concept in the Build Back Better Act, we will soon be able to provide states with new funding to increase graduation and completion rates for all students enrolled in public colleges and universities. Colleges will be able to put these funds to work right away on a variety of evidence-based programs that support student retention, completion and success.

That includes such programs as the Student Experience Project, which is working with partner institutions, among them the University of New Mexico, to create a more inclusive and equitable classroom environment in entry-level courses, and improve support services provided to first- and second-year students from underrepresented backgrounds. Another great example is New Mexico State University’s on-campus food bank, the Aggie Cupboard, which has helped address growing food insecurity among its student community.

Colleges will also be able to implement two-generation solutions that help college students with children. We have not adapted well enough to the reality that more than one in five college students is also a parent. If parents are able to find time to attend school, they have to fit their class schedule around their jobs, as well as their child’s school and child care hours. This limits parents’ access to a full and rigorous class schedule. The new Retention and Completion Grants will allow colleges to better support students with children; then, families will overcome barriers and achieve success together.

The new Retention and Completion Grants will also allow schools to scale up direct supports that students need, such as mental health services, mentoring and career coaching. Schools will be able to help students apply for and access financial assistance and benefit programs that will help them meet such basic needs as food and housing. Finally, this new funding will allow colleges to create incentives to keep students on track, provide accelerated learning options, such as early college high school programs, and improve transfers between different state schools and community colleges.

The financial rewards of finishing college benefit not just the students, but also their children, their families and their communities as a whole.

With the College Retention and Completion Grants, we can finally make sure students aren’t just getting into college, but are getting through college.

 

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