NAICU Washington Update

Hearing Highlights Educational Hurdles Faced by Low-Income and Minority Students

May 19, 2014

Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee heard from a diverse range of witnesses about the serious hurdles facing low-income and minority students as they work to get to and through a college or university, as well as, innovative efforts that are helping students overcome these challenges.

Witnesses at the hearing, chaired by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), agreed that low-income and minority students face unique and significant cultural, financial, and academic hurdles on the way to a higher education. Witnesses also described a number of innovative approaches and programs that have been effective in getting students to apply to and complete college.

Former NAICU Board chair, President John Bassett of Heritage University, a small, rural college dedicated to serving local Native-American and Hispanic students, 90% of whom are eligible for Pell Grants, was one of the witnesses. He described both the growth and success, as well as, the challenges that Heritage faces in providing programs and resources to these diverse student populations. Underscoring the financial difficulties, Bassett also noted that some juniors and seniors who transfer to Heritage have already exhausted their eligibility for Title IV aid prior to arriving on campus.

In addition to the financial difficulties, low aspirations and poor academic preparation drastically inhibit student enrollment and completion. Thus, Heritage has invested in early outreach to elementary and secondary students, and is providing “professional student support, advising and tutoring.” In addition, Heritage’s high expectations of the students, opportunities for cultural awareness, and including them in cohorts, are important components of student success and community support.

Also testifying was Michael Lomax, President of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), who highlighted the financial and academic preparation challenges facing students at private Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Lomax recommended improving the pre-K through college pipeline for communities of color and made a number of recommendations for changing student aid financing. Among his recommendations were increasing private financial support, such as the Citibank college savings accounts program with KIPP charter schools, restoring “summer Pell,” repealing various eligibility restrictions on Pell, easing credit-testing for Parent PLUS loans, delaying cohort default rate sanctions, going to automatic income-based student loan repayment, providing venture capital to HBCUS, and not basing student aid on college ratings. (Tightening of PLUS credit standards several years ago led to decreases in enrollment at HBCUs and is currently under consideration in the Department of Education’s rule-making process.)

Marybeth Gasman, Director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania provided an overview of minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and noted they produced 11% of the nation’s teachers. Like other witnesses, she urged additional aid for MSIs that would help them become more self-sustaining. She also recommended intervention and mentoring of minority students, and mandating the collection of outcome data on students, including post-college employment.

Other efforts recommended during the hearing included funding for Titles III and V, expanding Pell eligibility, simplifying the FAFSA, improving college readiness, improving data sharing between K-12 and colleges, offering initiatives focused on helping African American males, and providing access to STEM programs.

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