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Free College Tuition Isn’t Enough: Fresh Story Ideas on the Dropout Crisis

What education reporters need to know about social service programs that can help close the completion gap.

Photo credit: Vadym Pastukh/Bigstock

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When it comes to writing news stories about efforts to help low-income students earn a college degree, journalists may be tempted to focus on “promise” programs that provide free tuition and, occasionally, intense academic counseling.

But as education writers are discovering, sometimes free tuition and an academic coach are not enough. So education reporters looking for fresh and important angles on efforts to help disadvantaged students make it to graduation can investigate whether the students are missing out on important social service programs, such as SNAP and emergency grant aid.

The nonprofit research organization MDRC found that compared to students in the Detroit Promise – a forerunner to the Detroit Promise Path – students paired with coaches in the Promise Path program did not earn two-year degrees at a significantly higher rate, according to a March 2021 Detroit News article about the Detroit Promise Path program. (The article was supported by an Education Writers Association grant.)

“For educators,” reporter Kim Kozlowski wrote, “it’s the latest indication that the barriers to finishing a higher education for historically disadvantaged populations will be more difficult to overcome than by providing free tuition coupled with a meager stipend and counseling assistance.”

Potential sources for more insight into Education Training Vouchers include:

  • Mark Courtney, a foster care expert and longtime social work professor at the University of Chicago.
  • Devlin Hanson, senior research associate at the Urban Institute
  • Mike Pergamit, senior fellow at the Urban Institute
  • Kate Thomas, a research analyst at the Urban Institute.

Hanson, Pergamit and Thomas all discussed the results of an evaluation of the Education and Training Vouchers in 10 states at this November 2020 Urban Institute presentation.

If free tuition and counseling are not enough, what will it take?

To help shine the light on this issue,  this reporter reached out to experts to see what kinds of programs and services – outside of those provided by an individual school – can help students deal with economic pressures beyond the cost of college itself.

Here are a few programs and services experts say merit a closer look from journalists who cover education.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Ashley Burnside, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), describes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP, as a “critical tool in supporting student retention.”

“Food insecurity is associated with negative health consequences, which negatively impact students’ grades and ability to attend and complete college,” Burnside says. “We always promote access to SNAP as a key way to ensure students can more easily meet their basic needs and focus on their studies, rather than having to be concerned about where their next meal is coming from.”

However, getting college students to take advantage of SNAP is not as easy as it may seem.

“The important point to emphasize here is that there are many barriers for students to access SNAP benefits, including but not limited to, meeting the SNAP student exemptions, completing the SNAP application process, and facing stigma,” Burnside says. Burnside points to her center’s Frequently Asked Questions About SNAP and Students webpage that provides more details about student hunger and how students can access SNAP under current law.

Burnside cited the Benefits Access for College Completion project – led by CLASP and the American Association of Community Colleges –  as evidence that having access to SNAP food benefits, along with other public benefits, can improve the likelihood of students’ college persistence and completion.

The CLASP Connecting Community College Students to SNAP report provides models that states can use to increase access to SNAP for college students with low incomes, according to Burnside.

Education and Training Vouchers

When it comes to college students who face difficult circumstances, perhaps no group has it harder than the estimated 23,000 youth who exit foster care each year.

Between 31% and 46% of youth who aged out of foster care experienced homelessness at least once by age 26, a 2013 study found.

And that makes completing college much more difficult. In 2010, 40% stated they didn’t have enough money to pay for school, and 20% said they had to work full time, a University of Chicago study showed.

Tameka Porter, a policy and government expert at George Mason University, urged reporters to look at Education Training Vouchers, or ETVs, which are vouchers meant to help former foster youth fill the financial gap to complete college. The vouchers, which are federally funded and state-administered, provide up to $5,000 annually to college-aged foster youth. The grants can be renewed for five years  until recipients reach age 26.

“These grants can be combined with other financial aid, reducing or eliminating the cost of college, which has shown to be a significant predictor of college completion,” Porter says.  The vouchers can not only be used for education-related fees – such as tuition, room and board, books and supplies – but also for day-to-day expenses, such as transportation, health insurance and child care once the funds have been used for school-related needs, Porter adds.

Getting information about educational and employment outcomes for ETV recipients is not easy. For instance, when this author filed an open records request for such data in all 50 states back in 2017, some states promptly provided detailed information while others wanted to charge hefty fees to compile the data. One state – perhaps inadvertently – released the names of voucher recipients – a violation of their privacy – while other states claimed not to track the data.

Emergency Grant Aid from CARES Act

Iris Palmer, senior advisor for Higher Education and Workforce at New America, urged reporters to take a closer look at emergency grant aid from federal stimulus bills.

She says reporters can learn about the impact of emergency grant aid from this MDRC article on providing emergency aid to college students during a crisis; this “Landscape Analysis of Emergency Aid Programs,” from NAPSA, an association of student affairs administrators; and this 2016 study on the impact of emergency financial assistance.

Asked how reporters can see if the grant aid is being spent the way it was intended, Palmer says reporters should look this U.S. Department of Education website on the Education Stabilization Fund to see what colleges are doing with their share of $30.75 billion in relief aid.

The  federal department is supposed to distribute the money to governors, K-12 schools and colleges through the Education Stabilization Fund established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).

Palmer urged reporters to dig into forthcoming data about how colleges are spending the relief aid they  received after the CARES Act passed. She also urged reporters to look for colleges that are “outliers” in terms of how the money is being spent.