Everyone, from President Barack Obama to Rep. Paul Ryan to Bill Gates, seems to have an idea for improving the Federal Pell Grant Program for higher education.
Worthy though some of these efforts may be, none reveals the crux of the problem: A huge proportion of this $40 billion annual federal investment is flowing to people who simply aren’t prepared to do college-level work. And this is perverting higher education’s mission, suppressing completion rates and warping the country’s K-12 system.
About two-thirds of low-income community-college students — and one-third of poor students at four-year colleges — need remedial (aka “developmental”) education, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit group. But it’s not working: Less than 10 percent of students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years, and just 35 percent of remedial students earn a four-year degree within six years.
What if the government decreed that three years hence, students would only be eligible for Pell aid if enrolled in credit-bearing college courses, thus disqualifying remedial education for support?
One could foresee various possible outcomes. Let’s start with the positive. Ambitious, low-income high-school students would know that if they want to attend college at public expense (probably their only option), they would first need to become “college-ready.” This would provide a clear sign and incentives for them to work hard, take college-prep classes and raise their reading and math skills to the appropriate level.
To be considered successful, the high schools serving these young people would need to get their college-bound students to a college-ready level, not just get them to graduation.