April 03, 2019

Harris, Colleagues Introduce New Legislation to Narrow College Achievement Gaps

Bill Would Establish Competitive Grant Program for Higher Ed Institutions to Address Inequities

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) on Wednesday joined Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) in introducing the College Equity Act, a bill that would give colleges and universities funding to address disparities in higher education recruitment, admissions, and support.

“The student achievement gap that persists along race and class lines at colleges and universities across the country is a direct threat to students’ ability to succeed. We must fix that,” Senator Harris said. “I’m proud to join with my colleagues on this legislation to encourage these institutions to identify, study, and fix the driving factors behind the achievement gap and ensure that every student has an opportunity to thrive.”

“There are schools where veterans, people of color, and people with disabilities are able to thrive, and others where they struggle. The difference often comes down to schools knowing the challenges that exist for students and doing something to help,” Senator Schatz said. “This bill provides federal funding so that the doors of every college and university are open to qualified students from all walks of life and these schools can offer the resources students need to graduate on time and make a good living for themselves.” 

Studies show that too often higher education outcomes depend on demographics. Students of color have lower acceptance, enrollment, and graduation rates, as well as lower post-graduation salaries and higher student loan debt. Over half of all college students with disabilities do not graduate within eight years. Less than 60 percent of all Pell Grant recipients complete degree programs within six years.

The College Equity Act takes three steps toward addressing these kinds of achievement gaps. First, it provides funding for colleges and universities to examine how institutional practices like admissions policies, financial aid processes, access to campus support services, and faculty diversity contribute to gaps in student outcomes by race and ethnicity, gender, income, ability, transfer status, military and veteran status, and other lines of identity. Second, it creates grants for institutions that have completed these audits to develop and execute improvement plans to address the findings. Finally, the bill increases accountability by sharing the findings of audits with higher education accrediting agencies, which can then provide technical assistance and share best practices across institutions.

Individual schools and systems have shown success in closing these achievement gaps. San Diego State University has bucked trends by graduating 76 percent of all student veterans within four years by providing support to students with military backgrounds. Similarly, Georgia State University was able to increase graduation rates for students of color and those receiving Pell Grants by offering advising, mentoring, and tutoring services; providing emergency grants to support low-income students; and keeping tabs on students who may be at-risk of dropping out.

Along with Harris and Schatz, the legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.).

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