FACT SHEET: New Federal Guidance and Resources to Support Completion and Success in Higher Education

America’s path to progress has long depended on our nation’s colleges and universities – and today, that’s more true than ever, when a college degree is increasingly a ticket to 21st-century careers and a secure middle class life or better,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. “Higher education is the gateway to opportunity for all people.”

Editor’s Note: State-by-state data follow in the table below.

Earning a college degree remains one of the most important investments one can make in his or her future. Over the course of a lifetime, the average American with a bachelor’s degree will earn approximately $1 million more than those without any postsecondary education, are more likely to repay their loans successfully, and is also far less likely to face unemployment.  Ensuring all Americans have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the global economy is critical to our nation’s economic competitiveness and success; by 2020, an estimated two-thirds of job openings will require postsecondary education or training.[1]

That’s why the Obama Administration has made historic investments to ensure college opportunity, affordability, and success, doubling investments in Pell Grants; creating the American Opportunity Tax Credit worth $10,000 over four years of college; making student loans more affordable by cutting interest rates and allowing borrowers to cap student loan payments at 10 percent of income through the Pay As You Earn and other income-driven repayment plans; making access to financial aid and college information simpler and faster; and promoting innovation and competition to bring down costs and improve college quality. The results show: more students are graduating college than ever, and new student loan defaults, delinquencies, and forbearances are on the decline.

Despite this progress, many American families still feel college is out of reach, and persistent gaps exist in college attendance and completion. While half of all people from high-income families will earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24, just one in 10 people from low-income families will.[2] In addition, today’s college students face new and different challenges. Nearly nine of 10 undergraduates live off-campus—either with parents, children, or roommates, or on their own. [3] About seven in 10 community college students work while they’re in college; nearly a third work full-time.[4] And one in four undergraduates are parents; more than 10 percent of undergraduates are single parents.[5] Too many students face barriers to completing college due to lack of access to basic resources like housing, food, health care, and childcare.

Completion Is Critical for Managing Loan Repayment

Students who complete their degrees experience better long-run outcomes. College graduates are more likely to be employed, have good-paying jobs, and pay back their student loans on time and successfully. But increasing college costs deter some would-be students from pursuing a college education. Between 1992 and 2012, the average amount owed by a typical student loan borrower who graduated with a bachelor’s degree more than doubled to a total of nearly $27,000.[6]

Over the past seven years the Obama Administration has advanced the dialogue about college to include increased access and completion. And for student loan borrowers, their ability to repay their loans depends more strongly on whether they complete their program of study than how much total debt they take on.

  • Two out of five first-time, full-time students who enroll in a bachelor’s degree program don’t graduate within six years.
  • The median debt of borrowers who defaulted by the end of June 2016 is less than $11,300, barely half of the median debt load for all students – $19,724.
  • The average debt for students who default is $21,100, half the average debt of those who graduate – $44,400.
  • Students who take out college loans but don’t graduate are three times more likely to default than borrowers who complete.[7]
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Because college remains the greatest driver of socioeconomic mobility in America, we must do more to ensure students from all backgrounds can access high-quality programs, are well-supported throughout their studies, and successfully complete their degrees.

Stronger Program Alignment and Clearer Information to Support our Nation’s Students

During a speech today at the 129th annual meeting of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. discussed the Obama Administration’s commitment to expanding access and ensuring successful outcomes among students pursuing a higher education; the urgent need for colleges and universities to serve an increasingly diverse and non-traditional student body; and accelerated efforts across the federal government to support our most vulnerable students complete their studies and thrive in the economy.

Better alignment of existing federal resources can make a substantial difference for college access and completion. That’s why today, the Department of Education joined five additional federal agencies— the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Department of Labor (DOL), and Department of the Treasury (Treasury)—in announcing a joint commitment to align federal supports and program delivery to promote college access and completion. These efforts will help break down critical barriers many Americans face in accessing the knowledge and skills needed to get a well-paying job, support their families, and contribute to the community. Through the following critical actions, the new guidance will support the growing number of colleges and universities in their efforts to expand college opportunity:

One study shows that coordinating available public federal benefits for students can help close the gap on unmet financial need, support students’ college completion, and lead to success in the workforce.[8] Putting this into action, community colleges across seven states joined the Benefits Access for College Completion to help eligible students access resources—such as SNAP, TANF, and child care—more easily. Colleges each developed strategies that were relevant to their own students’ and community’s needs, through activities that included improving referrals based on financial need, strengthening existing centers like Single Stop, and integrating registration and support as part of regular financial aid, academic, and career advising practices.

Building on the Administration’s Efforts to Increase College Completion

In this time of state disinvestment in higher education, it’s vital that all parties—institutions, states, and the federal government—take responsibility for delivering strong outcomes for our nations and ensure that all students complete college. The Obama Administration has called for significant new investments in the federal Pell Grant program, as well as two- and four-year institutions. Additionally, the Department has worked to protect students and taxpayers, including through its landmark Gainful Employment regulations that will stop the flow of federal dollars to poor-performing career college programs; strengthened state authorization requirements; defined the credit hour; ensured students are protected from bad-actor institutions and that financially risky institutions are held accountable; through the newly published borrower defense rule; and increased rigor in accreditation processes. The President’s fiscal year 2017 budget proposal includes several reforms that would promote college completion, particularly for low-income students, including:

  • Higher Education Innovation, to lower costs and increase quality through 15 experimental sites and First in the World grant funding to study and scale what works. To continue driving progress on this work, the Department of Education is hosting a convening on November 15, 2016 to spotlight and celebrate higher education innovation that has led to greater equity and student success through issues related to remediation reform, evidence-based student supports, and higher quality teaching.
  • America’s College Promise (ACP), which would make two years of community college free for responsible students, letting millions of responsible students earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree and the skills needed to succeed in the workforce at no cost. At least 37 programs have launched free community college programs since January 2015, adding more than $150 million in new investments in community colleges to serve 180,000 students. If all states participated, ACP could serve 9 million students and increase state investment in higher education, particularly based on student success rather than enrollment alone.
  • Pell for Accelerated Completion, which would allow full-time students to use their Pell awards to pay for courses year-round, including in the summer, enabling more students to complete their degrees faster and more affordably.
  • On-Track Pell Bonus, which would increase the maximum Pell award for approximately 2.3 million students to successfully work toward or accelerate their progress to a degree by taking enough credits to graduate on time.
  • College Opportunity and Graduation Bonus, which would reward colleges that successfully enroll and graduate a significant number of low-income and moderate-income students on time and encourage all institutions to improve their performance.

[2] Staff Report: Barriers to Higher Education. White House Task Force on Middle Class Families.
https://www.whitehouse.gov/assets/ documents/MCTF_staff_report_ barriers_to_college_FINAL.pdf

[3] National Center for Education Statistics. 2013. 2011–12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Calculations by HUD PD&R.

[6] “The Changing Profile Of Student Borrowers.” Pew Research Centers. 06 Oct. 2014.
http://www.pewsocialtrends.org /2014/10/07/the-changing-profile-of-student-borrowers/st-2014-10-07-student-debtors-04/.

[7] The statistic that borrowers who withdraw from school are 3 times more likely to default than borrowers who graduate is based on internal modeling from the Office of Federal Student Aid. This finding is consistent with numerous other multi-variate statistical analysis of student loan defaulters over the past 20 years, including: Gross, Jacob P. K., Osman Cekic, Don Hossler, and Nick Hillman, “What Matters in Student Loan Default: A Review of the Research Literature”, Journal of Student Financial Aid, Volume 39, Number 1, 2009, http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ905712.pdf; “Student Loan Default: Some Relevant Factors”, Iowa College Student Aid Commission. April, 2010, https://apps.iowacollegeaid.gov/marketing/docs/2010studentloandefault.pdf; and Steiner, Matt and Natalie Tezler, “Multivariate Analysis of Student Loan Defaulters at Texas A&M University”, TD Research and Analytical Services, 2005, http://www.tgslc.org/pdf/TAMU_Multivariate_Analysis.pdf.


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