Ethan is a low-income student attending college in southeast Texas, the sort of person higher education should support. Right before his tuition was due, Ethan had to cover an unexpected and urgent personal expense. When he missed the tuition payment deadline, he was surprised to find himself abruptly dropped from all of his classes. He thought he had no option but to drop out. Ethan was lucky. He had a scholarship from the Dell Scholars program, and program staff helped him navigate the financial aid process. He is due to graduate on time.
His story, unfortunately, is the exception. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
Millions of college students receive federal financial aid through Pell Grants each year, but this assistance, while essential, only goes so far. Just as critical is making sure low-income and first-generation college students have the support they need to navigate higher education’s — and life’s — challenges to see their way through to graduation.
As President Lyndon B. Johnson put it when he signed the Higher Education Act into law, learning must offer “an escape from poverty.” Yet the low-and-middle income students who receive Pell Grants far too often do not achieve a degree, and higher education is not their career springboard.
Unfortunately, Pell Grant students graduate at far lower rates than the overall population – nearly 40% of Pell Grant recipients drop out.
This is not their fault. Pell Grant recipients face extraordinary challenges outside of the classroom — from paying for housing or balancing part- or full-time work, to navigating family health issues.
There is good news, however. Many universities have recognized and begun addressing this problem, but there’s much more that needs to be done.
Take The University of Texas at Austin’s 10-year, $100 million partnership with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation as one example.
This commitment will be used to create a personalized support system for UT Austin students, eventually growing to serve every Pell Grant recipient on campus — about 8,000 students per year, or 20% of the student body. It will include real-time customized tutoring, advising, mentorship and counseling, and financial planning services, along with other support like textbook and technology assistance.
This is the evidence-based approach that higher education needs to adopt more frequently. The data show investments in student support enable students to graduate. Also telling are the statistics of students in the Dell Scholars program — over the last 15 years, across 500 colleges, graduation rates for Pell-eligible students receiving services through the program were four times the national average.
Based on this track record, UT Austin is setting an ambitious goal. Currently, 73% of the university’s Pell recipients graduate within six years, which, while significantly higher than the national average, is still 13 points lower than that of the overall student body. Our eventual goal is for 90% of Pell Grant students at UT Austin to graduate in six years. It is aggressive. Yet it is achievable.
There’s a lot riding on this partnership, and not just for UT Austin. If this works the way we believe it will, it can provide true “proof of concept.” It will show universities in Texas and around the country an excellent way to support students from low-income families. It can help stem the dropout epidemic. It could be a real benefit to our economy, our country and the learners themselves.
And, to be clear, it takes resources — federal, state, private and nonprofit — to fund ambitious student support programs like this one. Our partnership was made possible because of UT Austin’s Texas Advance Commitment, which covers tuition for in-state students from families earning $65,000 or less. Universities must also seek to implement similar financial aid guarantees and personalized student support if they are to help build strong foundations for all students.
Ben Franklin said, “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” We agree. Your talent and intellect should determine whether or not you graduate from college — not your financial status. By investing fully in all students’ knowledge, we can ensure they get a real chance at a life-changing degree.
Gregory L. Fenves is the President of The University of Texas at Austin.
Janet Mountain is the Executive Director of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.