Making college free won't fix THIS problem

Can you remember an election season that's brought more attention to increasing college enrollment? Proposals range from making community college loan-free to making it completely free. But getting more people to college has little impact if they don't earn a degree or certificate.

It's completion — not enrollment — that really matters.

People walk through the University of Colorado campus in Boulder, Colorado.
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People walk through the University of Colorado campus in Boulder, Colorado.

Over two-thirds of young Americans now enroll directly in college after high school, according to the Labor Department. However, the Department of Education estimates that last year, only a third (34 percent) of people between the ages of 25 and 29 had actually completed a bachelor's degree or higher.

Equally troubling, the most economically disadvantaged students tend to complete college at much lower rates than their affluent peers. The Department of Education estimates that, among those enrolled in a four-year college in 2006, those from the poorest families were only about two-thirds as likely to have completed their degree six years later, compared to those from the wealthiest families.

What's preventing academically-qualified low-income students from completing their degrees at comparable rates? And more importantly,what can we do to help these students?

Part of this may be due to the fact that, even with financial aid, low-income students spend more hours working paid jobs in order to make ends meet compared to their more affluent peers. In general, low-income and non-traditional students may be juggling more complicated lives — and doing so with fewer financial and other resources to get through the rough spots.

Another factor may be the so-called "college mismatch." That is, the pattern of low-income students applying to and enrolling in less-selective colleges than they are qualified for. Typically, these less-selective colleges have lower completion rates than more-selective colleges, so low-income students might graduate at higher rates if they enrolled in schools to which they were better matched.

Third, higher dropout rates may be, in part, caused from less familiarity and "cultural competence" with college. Low-income students often come from the first generation in their families to attend college, whereas more economically advantaged students typically have at least one parent or other adult in their lives with a college degree.

These "native guides" can help the student handle and find assistance dealing with the common crises that arise during college — such as a failed midterm or difficulties fitting in. In the face of such setbacks, students lacking a family culture of college attendance may be more likely to decide that they're not "college material" and drop out.

But in addition to these factors, it appears that relatively small financial shortfalls can derail low-income students. It is these challenges that emergency aid targets.

Emergency-aid programs are programs that provide small cash grants to low-income students to cover unexpected crises, expenses, or short falls that might otherwise cause the student to drop out.

The Panther Retention Grant program at Georgia State University (GSU) is one such program. Started in 2011 with a $40,000 donation from GSU President Mark Becker and his wife, the program has since provided over 4,287 grants to students with an average value of approximately $900.

The university's data system proactively flags low-income students who are about to be dropped from enrollment due to nonpayment of tuition, and then prioritizes grants to those who are closest to graduation and who have the smallest unpaid balance. Between 2011 and 2013, GSU's overall completion rate rose to 53 percent from 47 percent.

What's also encouraging is that graduation rates for low-income, African-American, and Latino students at the school have come to match those of white and higher-income students.

The Dreamkeepers program of Scholarship America is another example, in this case targeted at students at community colleges.

Dreamkeepers works with 41 affiliated two-year colleges to provide emergency grants to students to keep them in school. In 2014, the program helped 1,545 students with grants averaging $445.

And then there's Finish Line at the University of Memphis. Since its 2013 fall launch, 123 Finish Line students have graduated at an average cost of $1,649. Over two-thirds (68 percent) of the beneficiaries were women, with an average age of 36.

In both the presidential and congressional races, the Democratic and Republican candidates are often miles apart in their policy proposals, yet a common thread exists: Their commitment to regaining America's competitive edge.

But that hinges, first and foremost, on cultivating a workforce that's second to none.

The voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, and all across the country need to be hearing less about college enrollment and more about the challenges of — and the candidates' solutions to — college completion.

Monica Herk is the Vice President of Education Research at the Committee for Economic Development. Follow her on Twitter@BizViewOnEd.