What share of students enrolled in the nation's community colleges would you describe as ill-suited for school or unlikely to graduate?
We would never describe any student as "ill-suited for school." However, community colleges do enroll students who, for a variety of reasons, are highly unlikely to complete their programs. It is difficult to confidently estimate the size of this group. But to provide some perspective, after Pima Community College began requiring students to demonstrate at least a seventh-grade basic skills equivalency on the placement test before allowing enrollment in the financial-aid-eligible curriculum, developmental education enrollment dropped about 30 percent the following semester.
If American secondary students knew years in advance that their postsecondary financial aid was tied to demonstrating readiness for at least a secondary curriculum — as is current federal regulation — community colleges would enroll far fewer high school graduates with basic skills on par with students in elementary school than they currently do.
As it stands, promised access to the financial-aid-eligible curriculum sends a strong message that no academic preparation or engagement is necessary for enrollment, with devastating consequences to individuals and our country as a whole.
How would you describe the financial consequences?
On a macro level, much media attention has been given to the student-debt crisis and its impact on the economy. At $1.2 trillion, student-loan debt now exceeds American credit-card debt and diverts from consumer spending, investments, retirements savings, and much more. Postsecondary credentials are increasingly important for individuals, for the health of the nation, and for competition in a global economy, yet not enough student aid is currently made available to support capable, low-income students through to completion.
For example, because of problems funding the Pell Grant program, summer funds for low-income students were cut as of July 2012, and the total number of semesters that Pell Grants are available to students was cut from 18 to 12.
On a micro level, seriously unprepared students who fail to complete programs of study often use up limited personal funds and/or accumulate personal debt. As a result, the likelihood that these students will complete a program when they are ready — or elect to pursue another postsecondary pathway — is low, unfortunately.
Should financial aid access be limited in some way that might prevent some of the really tragic stories detailed in your book (former students mired in debt with no degree or credentials and stuck in minimum-wage jobs)?
We think completion-friendly financial-aid access should actually be expanded in some very specific ways. As of July 2012, the Ability to Benefit provision was removed from Federal Student Aid, meaning that students without a high school diploma or the equivalent (usually a GED) became ineligible for federal financial aid. As a result, for nearly two years, many academically capable, low-income students have been unable to quickly qualify for the most completion-friendly form of higher-education financing.