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How the Education Department’s College Completion Fund Gets It Right

A new vision of college excellence prioritizes college completion, economic mobility, and narrowing the opportunity gap.

A graduate wearing a cap and gown smiles in a sea of classmates.
A graduation ceremony at The City College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Our country is finally starting to pay attention to higher education beyond the Ivy League and flagship institutions – and not a moment too soon. For too long, policymakers, the media – and yes, funders – have unnecessarily celebrated the elite and brand name institutions, while often ignoring and underfunding the institutions driving economic mobility in our country. 

That’s finally changing with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s new vision of college excellence, which prioritizes college completion, economic mobility, and narrowing the opportunity gap. Exclusivity is out and inclusivity is in.

One of the most exciting pieces of this vision is the creation of the College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Student Success. This new fund will provide grants for campuses to establish proven programs, like CUNY ASAP and Bottom Line, and back adaptations of other promising interventions such as wraparound services, basic needs, or holistic advising. 

What truly shines is how this agenda prioritizes evidence-based programs. This is more than good intentions. We know these investments work. In a rigorous, well-conducted randomized control trial, students participating in Bottom Line were 23% more likely to graduate from college within four years of high school, compared with the control group. Similarly, CUNY ASAP nearly doubled community college graduation rates at both CUNY and in replication sites, and early outcomes of the four-year adaptation, ACE, show that the proportion of students on-track to graduate is 16 percentage points higher than the comparison group.

But the department can’t do it alone. We need a whole community approach that includes policymakers, higher education leaders, and funders working together. 

For our part, Arnold Ventures is pleased to announce new funding to support evaluation of the interventions established with College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Student Success grants. On Sept. 7, we released a request for proposals focused on rigorous evaluation of student success efforts. These evaluation efforts can help build the critical toolbox of programs and policies institutional leaders can use to better support their students while also growing the base of interventions that demonstrate their impact on student outcomes. We invite the institutions that are applying for the College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Student Success dollars – as well as any other institution – to also consider applying for these evaluation dollars for the effects of college completion programs.

Universities are already discovering the many benefits to college completion and its effect on economic mobility. University of North Carolina-Greensboro, highlighted as a Tier I school in Third Way’s Economic Mobility Index, has capitalized on college completion programs with noted success. UNCG is implementing a number of evidence-based student success efforts, including TrACE, a project with the UNC System Office that adapts CUNY ASAP to focus on transfer students. These kinds of innovations – and the commitment to evidence – exemplify how the College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Student Success can positively impact institutions and their students. 

Even though the grant applications for the College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Student Success have recently opened, higher education advocates are already fighting for an increased appropriation next year. We know there are many more efforts out there than can be funded this year. As we look to grow the pot, we have confidence the College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Student Success will turbocharge the important student success work so many institutions, like UNCG, are taking on.

As policymakers and the public continue to ask questions about the value of higher education, it is critical for higher education to respond by showing its value. That means ensuring students schools bring in the door are supported, graduate, and are well-prepared for life after college. This first-of-its-kind grant is a critical piece of this puzzle.

The College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Student Success is a chance for colleges and universities to demonstrate their commitment to value for their students. Together, we can build our collective arsenal of evidence-based completion strategies to ensure that higher education continues to be a pathway to economic mobility and stability.