WASHINGTON, D.C. | April 30, 2015
I’d like to thank our witnesses for joining us to discuss strategies for improving postsecondary access and completion for low-income and first-generation students. We appreciate the opportunity to learn from you as Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act
This is a very personal issue for me. As someone who grew up in extreme poverty, I know firsthand what it takes to earn a degree in difficult circumstances as well as what that degree means for one’s opportunity for advancement. Some of the most rewarding experiences I have had as an educator involved helping disadvantaged students overcome obstacles to reach their goals and achieve success.
The Education and the Workforce Committee has held more than a dozen hearings about how to strengthen America’s higher education system for all those who choose to pursue a degree or credential – regardless of age, background, or circumstances.
Research shows students who attain advanced levels of education are more likely to succeed in today’s economy. For example, students who earn an associate’s degree are expected to earn 27 percent more than their peers with a high school diploma over the course of a lifetime.
For many students, however, the idea of graduating feels like a distant dream. Higher costs, a confusing financial aid system, and insufficient academic preparation disproportionately deter low-income and first-generation students from accessing and completing a higher education.
Recognizing the challenges facing these students, the federal government invests in numerous programs geared toward identifying and supporting disadvantaged students and the institutions that serve them. In addition to providing students need-based financial assistance, such as Pell Grants, the federal government also provides early outreach and support services to help students progress from middle school through college.
Programs such as GEAR UP and Upward Bound receive more than one billion of taxpayer dollars to support tutoring, family financial counseling, internships, research opportunities, and other preparatory and motivational services – all with the goal of improving access for low-income and first-generation students.
And our efforts don’t stop there. Because improving the educational outcomes for disadvantaged students is an important priority, the federal government directly supports institutions that focus on serving underrepresented students in an effort to help them complete a higher education.
While these efforts are well intentioned, there is a growing concern they are not reaching their goals. For example, according to a study published earlier this year by one of our witnesses, Dr. Laura Perna, the percentage of low-income students who have attained a bachelor’s degree has increased by just 3 percent since 1970. By comparison, the percentage of the wealthiest students who attained a bachelor’s degree has increased by 40 percent.
In other words, despite the federal government’s growing investment in access and completion programs over the last five decades, graduation rates for the most disadvantaged students have barely budged.
We have a responsibility to students, families, and taxpayers to ensure all of our investments in higher education deliver the intended results. Understanding how to strengthen these efforts for low-income and first-generation students is why our witnesses are here today. As we work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, we want to learn about your efforts to pioneer new strategies and study the effectiveness of existing strategies so that more disadvantaged students can achieve the dream of a higher education.
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