Promoting Innovation to Improve College Access and Completion

Testimony Submitted to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance

Photograph of a form labeled Scholarship Application
By Alexander Mayer, Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, John Diamond

MDRC is pleased to provide testimony on college access and completion to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. MDRC — a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization based in New York City and Oakland, California — was founded more than 40 years ago to build reliable evidence on the effectiveness of programs for the disadvantaged and to help policymakers and practitioners use that evidence to improve policies and programs. MDRC is known for conducting large-scale evaluations and demonstration projects to test the impacts and cost-effectiveness of education and social programs. Many MDRC studies use a random assignment research design, the most rigorous method for assessing such programs, which is able to determine the effects of an intervention over and above business as usual. This method, analogous to the one used in medical clinical trials, produces the most reliable evidence that a program works. As a result, it is accepted without reservations by the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse (WWC).

Access to college has increased substantially over the last 50 years, but student success — defined as the combination of academic success and degree or certificate completion — has not kept pace. Student success, moreover, generally correlates with students’ financial resources: Students from high-income families attend and complete college at higher rates than low-income students. There have been marked successes in college access since the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which extended need-based financial assistance to the general population for the first time. Given the size of the financial aid system ($226 billion), renewed attention to innovations in financial aid could lead to improvements in student success.

However, it is challenging to determine whether financial aid does in fact improve student success, because the factors associated with financial need, such as low family income, are also associated with a lack of academic success, making it difficult to isolate the effect of additional financial aid on student achievement. Using randomized controlled trials helps overcome this challenge. MDRC and other researchers have partnered with institutions across the country to conduct large, randomized controlled trials of innovations in financial aid, demonstrating that financial aid innovations and rigorous research can be effectively paired to produce reliable, useful evidence.

We recommend encouraging financial aid innovation paired with evaluation research, especially randomized controlled trials. This testimony focuses on:

  • Year-round financial aid: We describe existing research that suggests year-round financial aid could improve access and completion. We also describe strategies to test such a change rigorously before implementing it more broadly.

  • Federal Work-Study and satisfactory academic progress requirements: We briefly describe two other innovations that could help improve access and completion, namely, retargeting and realigning Federal Work-Study and restructuring the notification of “satisfactory academic progress” (SAP) requirements in the Pell Grant program.

  • Clarifying opportunities for innovation: The Department of Education could grant waivers more readily if innovations were paired with evaluation research and could clarify where institutions currently have flexibility that does not require a waiver.

Document Details

Publication Type
September 2015
Mayer, Alexander, Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, and John Diamond. 2015. “Promoting Innovation to Improve College Access and Completion.” New York: MDRC.