Paul Peterson of Harvard’s Kennedy School has a very simple and common sense proposal to jump start the conversation on reform of the federal higher education grant system—we should require students who apply for financial aid through programs like Pell Grants to demonstrate that they are ready for postsecondary work by passing a state exam before receiving federal aid. For example, Texas has already adopted such a test, called the Texas Success Initiative examination, for purposes of determining which students are required to take remedial courses upon entering college. It is a criterion-referenced exam tied to state postsecondary readiness standards adopted by Texas educators with statewide acceptance and validity.
According to a recent article in Education Next, in 2011, the latest year for which information is available, Pell Grants cost $41.7 billion, a 300% increase in four years! And the number of eligible applicants increased by 80% from 2007 to 2011 while the maximum available grant rose 25% over the same period. Meanwhile, federal documentation does not report whether or not a grant recipient has completed a term for which they received the grant, an improvement that would at least prompt a wider discussion of the issue. Is it too much to ask that we require these applicants to prove that they are worthy of taxpayer assistance? Of course there are numerous cases of gaming the system, but the more important issue is college readiness, and a requirement to demonstrate this readiness would significantly increase the student incentive to achieve in high school while providing an additional degree of accountability for elementary and secondary educators.
But, as Peterson reports, despite wide public support, neither Democrats nor Republicans are prepared to support such an assessment of postsecondary readiness as a condition for federal aid. Consequently, no one is prepared to make the obvious case that our public education system is failing these students for postsecondary success, so we simply continue to spend the money to send these kids down the road to dropout and failure. So sad.