More Money to Help Lower-Income Virginians Go to College?

Percent of students with financial need receiving a Virginia Student Financial Assistance Program award. (Click for more legible image.)

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) has set a goal of making Virginia the best educated state in the country, but getting there could be an uphill climb. While the in-migration of educated people has boosted Virginia to a 6th-place rank nationally in educational attainment, the attainment of high school grads is only 11th. Increasingly, the state’s college-bound population consists of minority-race households with lower income who face greater academic and financial challenges attending college.

To address the problem, SCHEV staff recommends significant spending boosts in the next biennial budget to help recruit and retain “first generation” students who are the first in their family to attend college. Highlights include:

  • $2.5 million annually to encourage lower-income high schoolers to attend college;
  • $10.0 million over two  years for colleges and universities to provide student support services and experiential learning programs; and
  • $45.5 million over two years to boost the Virginia Student Financial Assistance program for lower-income students.

The Council will consider these and other budget proposals in its October board meeting tomorrow. The entire two-year package of higher-ed recommendations enumerated by SCHEV staff total $240 million in General Fund spending and $126 million in nongeneral funds. If approved, the recommendations will be forwarded to the McAuliffe administration and to legislators working on the fiscal 2018-2020 budget. Higher-ed priorities will face stiff competition from Medicaid, K-12 education, transportation, and public safety, among other priorities.

Postsecondary access resources. A July 2017 SCHEV-commissioned study, “Landscape of Postsecondary Access Resources in Virginia,” found that 30% of Virginia school districts need additional resources to counsel middle and high school students about college careers. The need is particularly acute among lower-income students.

The staff presentation by Finance Policy Director Dan Hix did not specify what the $2.5 million in “postsecondary-preparatory planning and capacity-building efforts” would be spent on. But the July report suggests “SAT/ACT test preparation, the financial aid application process and/or financial literacy, and opportunities for student exposure to postsecondary institutions, especially those beyond the local area.”

Graduation rate. Another priority is bolstering the graduation rate. Schools have experimented with an array of programs to improve student retention, from one-stop shopping for tutoring, mentoring, and guidance counseling; family orientation programs to get parents more engaged; living-learning dormitories that house students with similar interests; and the use of predictive analytics to spot dropout risks.

The $10 million for such programs, states the Hix presentation, should be tied to graduation rates and other success metrics.

Financial aid. The federal government provides extensive financial aid to lower-income students in the form of Pell grants and loans. Public universities also run scholarship programs funded by donations and tuition. (Virginia higher-ed institutions are using approximately 5% of in-state tuition revenue for financial aid for in-state students.)

The Virginia Student Financial Assistance Program (VSFAP) is a third source of financial assistance. In 2016 Governor Terry McAuliffe and the General Assembly put an extra $24.1 million into VSFAP, the largest increase in the program’s history.

Yet from fiscal 2013 to 2016, states the Hix presentation, combined enrollment across all public Virginia institutions dropped by 11,200 students (mostly at community colleges). Students demonstrating financial need declined by 13,000.
The loss was concentrated among students in the $0-to-$50,000 income group, which declined by nearly 17,000 (14.8%).

The VSAP program must balance two criteria: helping more students and making larger awards. Virginia universities have been awarding money to more students, but the awards have not kept up with students’ needs. The results, says Hix, are unfortunate. He cites a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report suggesting that a $1,000 boost to financial aid is associated with a three- to five-percent point increase in college attendance. Presumably the converse is true: a $1,000 cut in financial aid is associated with a three- to five-percent drop in attendance. The practice of spreading the gravy might be contributing to a higher dropout rate. SCHEV’s solution: Put more funding into the program.

Bacon’s bottom line: Hix’s analysis makes perfect sense if you accept the proposition that more lower-income students need to attend college. The aspiration certainly makes sense to colleges, which need more lower-income students paying tuition to maintain their revenue streams. It make sense to the business community, which wants a skilled and educated workforce without bearing the expense of training or apprenticeships. And it makes sense to social justice advocates who think it unjust that some Americans are stuck in lower-paying jobs because of a lack of educational opportunity. But the aspiration may not make sense to lower-income Americans themselves.

A four-year college education can be a ticket to the middle class, or even riches for a fortunate few. But attending college is a lottery. If you are a first-generation college student, there is a good chance that you will struggle academically, have a hard time paying the bills even with financial aid, and drop out saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. There is a good chance that you’ll fall behind in your loans, your credit will be wrecked, and your life will be worse than if you never went to college. How many millions of Americans have had that experience? How many students in the same social milieu have heard the cautionary tales? And how much will it cost to overcome their resistance?

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13 responses to “More Money to Help Lower-Income Virginians Go to College?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I thought UVA has a pretty good record of getting their low-income/minorities to success , no?

    Is that a model than can be replicated on a bigger scale?

    I believe there are other colleges who have a proven record of getting these “at-risk” kids through college also.

  2. If parents aren’t involved, the home situation is not good, if they have to work more than 10-20 hours a week, take care of others, what do you expect? It would not surprise me also to find that UVA has the pick of the best, most motivated, so that can also have a factor.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Seems like they have to have the HS grades and SAT to get in – in the first place, no?

    So how does that make sense?

    they get through HS with good grades, get a good SAT then “fail” because they are “not prepared”?

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    From the news this morning – about K-12 schools in Virginia:

    ” Report: Virginia’s high-poverty schools don’t have same opportunities for students”

    There are “striking deficiencies” in educational opportunities for students in high-poverty Virginia schools, a new report has found.

    Students in high-poverty schools, or schools where at least 75 percent receive free and reduced-price lunch, have less access to core subjects like math and science, lower levels of state and local funding for instructors, who are less experienced in these schools, according to a report from The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a research organization based in Richmond that focuses on economics and policy.

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Gee, Jim, you missed your calling. What a wonderful guidance counselor you would make, discouraging kids from wasting their time and money by attempting a college education.

    You can’t look at this outside the larger context of cost. If the schools are going to be allowed (or encouraged) to jack up their prices by multiples of inflation year after year, does that create an obligation for the taxpayer-provided financial aid level to keep up? How many millions more are needed year after year to support the same number of students? Are we really supporting more students now than ten years ago, five years ago?

    Many of the schools now are engaging in wealth transfers, taking some of their tuition revenue from paying students and diverting it to their own financial aid programs for other students. Does that happen with the taxpayer-financed tuition payments as well?

    Would the same amount of dollars, or even fewer dollars, produce more graduates if the focus really was on students most likely to graduate, or if the support network focused more on success? Or do we throw the dice and spend some dollars on those students with some odds against them?

    I don’t disagree that changing the mix and concentrating more resources on the community colleges and even non-degree programs might make sense. Yes, for many people a technical career will produce more income over time than a marginal BA. Perhaps we should really shake things up and concentrate all the scholarship money there, creating real access to at least the first phase of a college education. But it would be easier to do if the tuition and fee bills for everybody were not growing so fast. First stop digging the hole.

    I fully understand that when you and I went through, Jim, the taxpayers were picking up most of the cost at UVA and WM. It was also a much lower adjusted cost. But knowing that makes me very sympathetic to the plight of today’s middle income and lower income students.

  6. CleanAir&Water Avatar

    As a former school board member and Chair I think Larry is right …start with fixing the oversight and help given to systems that don’t make the grade, systems with too many poor and disadvantaged students who cost more to educate. School boundries, and state assistance to areas without a large enough real estate valuation for a school tax base, should be looked at for changes.

    Second, Bernie raised the issue of no cost state post secondary schools which could be 2 year colleges. Much of that state money would go further if it went directly to the colleges to lower their tuition instead of the administration of giving directly to the student, and then leaving graduates saddled with student debt and the administration with collecting that debt.

  7. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    There has been considerable conversation about reforming compensation for health care services to pay more for good results. Perhaps, the same approach should be taken for higher education. State tax dollars could pay based on an assumption students can graduate in five years. The School more or less breaks even when a student makes this target and it gets ahead when a student graduates in four years. This concept provides a financial incentive to help students be successful. And should give them flexibility to address different challenges differently.

    Four-year colleges could, in theory, share some of their money with community colleges that send them graduates who can make it through the college in two more years.

  8. S. E. Warwick Avatar
    S. E. Warwick

    We need more discussion about the cost versus the value of a traditional college education. Helping each students identify and develop their particular talents so they can pursue satisfying careers, including those in non-academic fields, is more important than filling university seats.
    If a students wants to be a poet, more power to them. However, they might want to learn how to weld so they can be self-sustaining.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    Used to be a test called Myer-Briggs….not sure it is still considered relevant but the purpose of it was to identify the kinds of activities/work that one had an affinity for – and conversely the one’s not.

    The military can help play that role for some who are not as well “guided” as others who sort of know where they want to head.

    Community college is another place to learn something that can help you make a living and also help you decide where you might want to go for the next two years.

    The interesting thing is that k-12 no longer really prepares folks for most 21st century jobs – and worse than that only about 1/2 of the high school grads are really ready for first year college… on the basics language/literacy and math so for most kids – K-12 is not “enough” for getting a decent job in the 21st century economy and even 4 years of college is not enough either unless it has some realistic focus towards a field that has legitimate employment opportunities.

    In terms of “free” college… college loans… and who to give the money …

    give the basic tuition money to the student and let them pick where they wnt to go to college – that will engender some legitimate competition.

    For the extras – put that on the student or his/her parents. If they want to live on campus.. or other “extras” – that ought to be on the student and parents.

    In other words – guarantee EVERY kids – ACCESS to a college education and DON’T give it to the Colleges who surely will find a way to gobble it up and ask for more. Give it to the kid and let them “shop” for the best deal which will cause them to think about costs that will be on them – either direct or loan.

    Right now – we’ve got a Gravy Train type environment that is squandered because the taxpayer is picking up a lot of the extra cost expenses and truly indiscriminate loans… that last I heard was hitting 1-2 trillion.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      “give the basic tuition money to the student and let them pick where they wnt to go to college – that will engender some legitimate competition.”

      That makes good sense. Every business in America has to compete for customers and the revenue is not available until a sale is made. Yet, businesses have fixed expenses, often including capital expenses, and they either survive or fail.

  10. If you listen to the students who are either in the midst of college as first-in-family or have already dropped out, the hurdles they describe might surprise you by their intrinsic simplicity. Books–not knowing that books would need to be purchased, not having $ for them, and not realizing that the library would have them. Off-campus housing can be a very sticky wicket.

    There are entire offices dedicated to supporting such students, sometimes on campus and sometimes as a tandem with the philanthropy that provides tuition $, but none of those staffers can help unless the students come to them. Many times, the students see this “help” as one more reminder that they are different, that they have special needs. The relentless reminders of coming from outside to inside…not every young adult will navigate this successfully.

    I point this out because throwing $ hasn’t yet solved the problem, no matter whose money it is.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’d think ANYONE who is the first in their family to attend college will feel “different” and GAWD knows when it comes to minorities, it’s not like they already “feel different”!!!! LORD!

    re: ” … because throwing $ hasn’t yet solved the problem, no matter whose money it is.”

    isn’t that sorta like saying VDOT has not fixed congestion and the police – crime?

    come on… we could argue about what “works” or not – but abandonment is irresponsible – we need MORE taxpayers and LESS entitlement takers and this is the path. If we think dollars towards “helping” folks get through college is expensive – try a lifetime of taxpayer-funded entitlements.

    we have to get over this type of thinking no matter whether it’s K-12 or College… One of our biggest problems is that we do not have enough qualified workers – and we’re importing labor to fill them!

    We spend 20-30K per kid in “special ed” … and then after that -they still require entitlements. Here we have a potential labor pool that needs a little more help to get an education and become full-fledged taxpayers who won’t need entitlements.

    Virginia’s economy is rooted in Federal Govt bureaucrats … we need a workforce that attracts 21st century private sector businesses.

  12. Relevant: The Washington Post: “Wanted for any job: A bachelor’s degree. Is that smart?”

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