KIPP Weighs In on Higher Education Act Rewrite, Calls on Congress to Make College More Accessible to Low-Income Kids

KIPP students in Washington D.C. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In a report released today, the KIPP Foundation called on Congress to make college more affordable and help students begin a path to finding good careers. By using federal money to pay for more high school guidance counselors and expand already-successful college completion programs, the organization said, lawmakers could open the door to millions more low-income and minority students earning their degrees.

The report was released as both the House and Senate consider whether to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, a federal law governing most aspects of postsecondary education. The act was last updated in 2008, and many fear that it has fallen behind the times with respect to college access and affordability. Given the looming retirement of Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, some believe that a rare bipartisan effort to revisit the law could be in play ahead of the 2020 election season.

While reauthorizing the act is a long-held goal of Alexander’s, it’s unknown whether the KIPP Foundation’s concerns are likely to be addressed. Much of the college debate has been dominated by the need to address the student loan debt burden and simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Richard Barth is CEO of the foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with the nationwide charter school network that educates more than 100,000 students in 224 schools.

“For some people that might say, ‘You’re a K-12 system, this is not your swim lane,’ our commitment to our kids is that we’re setting them up to live a choice-filled life,” Barth told Maybach Media. “We feel deeply responsible for taking our learning and sharing it with policymakers.”

Barth said that he felt it necessary to share the sometimes dispiriting perspectives of the more than 28,000 KIPP alumni, most of whom have matriculated at colleges.

The report details the challenges that many KIPP students — overwhelmingly from low-income and minority families — have encountered in college. The network, which has earned plaudits for its concerted efforts to track graduates through their college years and support them as they complete their degrees, surveys its alumni annually on campuses around the country.

Among its discoveries: Seventy-two percent of respondents — roughly 3,500 KIPP alums — said they hadn’t pursued summer jobs or internships related to their desired career; 58 percent said they felt negatively judged because of their race; 57 percent said they worried about running out of food; and 42 percent said they’d missed meals to meet education-related expenses.

Those findings were bolstered by a much larger survey of 86,000 college students in 123 colleges and universities across the country that was just released April 30. It found that more than half of college and university students faced housing insecurity in the past year and 45 percent of students were food insecure. Such challenges help explain why, according to the Pell Institute, just 11 percent of low-income students graduate from college after six years.

The foundation’s findings, Barth said, made it clear that the network needed to be heard from on debates around higher education.

“It makes you sick. It also makes you feel like, if we don’t do something about this, we’re not doing our jobs. We’re telling them, ‘[College] really is a great thing to do,’ and then almost half of them are making a choice of whether they eat or buy school materials.”

The report lists five recommendations to include in a revised Higher Education Act, all designed to make college more accessible and affordable to students like those enrolled at KIPP charters:

1. Direct federal funding to send more college counselors to high-need schools, where they are in short supply;

2. Incentivize more spending on public university systems through a federal-state partnership focusing on need-based student aid;

3. Launch and replicate pilot programs designed to lift college completion rates among low-income, minority, and first-generation college students;

4. Invest directly in schools that already serve outsize numbers of disadvantaged students, such as historically black colleges and universities; and

5. Expand the federal work-study program to assist students in securing internships and summer jobs that bring meaningful workplace experience.

The recommendations partially echo those issued in March by a group of financial aid administrators. They dovetail less with a proposal released by the White House, which focused more on workforce training and instituting student lending caps.

KIPP has recently shown a willingness to weigh in on matters of public policy. Last year, it lobbied Congress to reach a permanent solution for students protected under DACA; the foundation also send an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in March, arguing against the administration’s proposed use of a citizenship question in the 2020 census.

Barth said that the organization wouldn’t shrink from a role as public advocate with the stakes for its students set so high.

“We’ve got a lot of lived experience, and there’s also a research base,” he said. “We feel like it is our obligation to bring that voice to bear.”

Disclosure: Maybach Media’s CEO, Stephen Cockrell, served as director of external impact for the KIPP Foundation from 2015 to 2019. He played no part in the reporting or editing of this story.

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