Unless you’re Steve Jobs, the worst thing you can do is to take out student loans, go to college, and then drop out before finishing your degree.
By doing that, you miss out on all the main economic benefits of college—a higher-paying job, a better chance of upward mobility—while getting all the worst bits. Namely, a truckload of student debt you can’t afford. It’s like paying mortgage on a house you can’t live in.
And yet, every year, roughly 45% of students who enroll in a bachelor’s degree program in this country drop out within six years, according to a 2011 Harvard study titled Pathways to Prosperity.
Even that population generally takes out only modest amounts of debt—less than $10,000 on average—they are disproportionately worse off than any other group of student debtors, mostly because they have a higher likelihood of being unemployed, partially employed, or stuck in a low-paying job. They are three times more likely to default on their loans than those who make it through to graduation day.
The Obama Administration announced two new proposals Tuesday aimed at addressing precisely this problem, Education Secretary John King said on a phone call with reporters. The proposals will be included in the White House’s February budget and would require Congressional support to pass.
The first proposal would provide full-time students with extra Pell Grant money that they could use to underwrite a third semester of study every year. By helping students to take summer classes and finish their requirements faster, the idea is to reduce the possibility that life’s many complications—babies, marriage, new jobs, family crises—prematurely curtail college careers. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that the proposal would provide nearly 700,000 students with an average of $1,915 more next year alone.
This year-round Pell program would resurrect, with some minor tweaks, a very similar program that Congress and President Obama cut from the budget cut in 2011.
The second proposal is a cash incentive. It would increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $300 to all students taking at least 15 credits per semester—a course load that could help put as many as 2.3 million students on-track to earn an associate’s degree in two years and a bachelor’s in four. This proposal is based in part on work done by social-policy research group MDRC, a nonpartisan organization that has studied the role of cash incentives in helping low-income students stay in school.
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The two proposals, while hardly expected to fly through this Congress, have perhaps a slightly better-than-average chance of surviving the gauntlet of legislative dysfunction. That’s largely because both Republicans and Democrats have been broadly supportive of initiatives that help move young people through college and into the workforce more efficiently. Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, promoted year-round Pell Grant funding in a previous bill, and has said that he welcomes the administration’s support for the idea.
“We are encouraged that these issues we’re talking about, that these are bipartisan issues,” Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell said during the same call with reporters. “These are not Democratic issues or Republican issues. We hope for bipartisan support for this package of initiatives.”
The Obama administration has not yet revealed how much its two proposals will cost. Over the last seven years, it has increased total aid available to students by over $50 billion from 2008 to 2016, and selected tax benefits by more than $12 billion, according to the Department of Education.
Both King and Mitchell participated in a student roundtable discussion at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida today. At one point, the administrators asked students to give them one word describing what the federal government can help them with. One student offered a simple response: money. “That resonated with the group,”Mitchell told reporters, “and I know it resonated with students around the country.”