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Completion-Focused Financial Aid

By Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed

Even those who most strongly support the concept of government financial assistance for college students concede that the system by which governments and colleges now provide it to American students isn't working optimally. Although the amount of financial aid flowing to students has risen sharply in the last decade, with state and federal governments and individual institutions alike ratcheting up their spending, low-income students remain significantly less likely than wealthier students to enroll in and graduate from college, and overall completion rates for American students have flattened.

But if relative consensus exists that the financial aid system might be improved, exactly what the problems are and how they might be fixed remain intensely in dispute -- at a critical time when the country's political leaders are intent on cutting the federal deficit.

So it's hardly surprising that a new effort aimed at "reimagining aid design and delivery" is stoking suspicions even before it is formally announced. Among the reasons are its patron -- the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which plans more than a dozen other grants related to financial aid; its short timeframe (developing its recommendations within several months); and its stated goal: “using student aid to provide the right incentives to help all students attain a high-value credential.”

The initiative, which is being led by HCM Strategists, a public policy consulting firm based in Washington, has brought together a series of financial aid analysts, former government officials and other technical experts to develop and assess the potential effects of a wide range of possible changes to federal aid programs. A yet-to-be-chosen "select committee" of high-profile college presidents, politicians and civic leaders will then hone and select among the options to create a smaller menu of recommendations for which its members -- through polling and other advocacy -- will try to build public support.

Kristin Conklin, the effort's organizer and a partner in HCM Strategists, says the panel's goal is to "change the [policy] conversation about financial aid from 'How can we find savings?' to 'Can we do better? and Can we help more low-income students be successful?'"

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