There is tremendous variation in goals and outcomes across schools nationwide, with elite private institutions demonstrating the highest graduation rates. College resources are positively correlated with both institutional selectivity and completion rates—that is, less-selective schools have fewer resources and lower completion rates, and vice versa. The open-door institutions with some of the highest levels of enrollment—community colleges—have roughly half the resources and subsidies enjoyed by public four-year colleges and universities.
Historically, direct federal subsidies to universities have been avoided for fear they might compromise the autonomy of schools or interfere with states’ rights. However, times have changed, and the contemporary crisis in educational attainment merits a new strategy.
States are struggling with limited resources, and it is time for Congress to help by creating a program that provides funds directly to universities invested in serving the broad swath of lower-income and lower-middle-class Americans. The funds should be targeted for use in academic programming and advising. In return, institutions receiving this aid should demonstrate regular gains in student achievement while not diminishing the diversity of their student population.
While the federal government should initiate this endeavor, states should become partners in an effort to increase completion for all students. One place to start would be to create a program that provided matching funds to states willing to strategize and innovate to increase degree production and reduce inequality among its students. A measurable positive outcome would be an upward trend over time in the completion of certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor’s degrees for all groups of students, taking into account baseline completion rates.
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