WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) reintroduced bipartisan legislation in the Senate to incentivize colleges to expand access for low-income students and increase graduation rates for all students. 

The Access, Success, and Persistence In Reshaping Education Act, or ASPIRE Act for short, will spur the nation’s institutions of higher education to enroll more low-income students and to ensure that these students actually graduate with a degree. The bill devotes resources to help boost completion rates at institutions that serve disproportionately high numbers of low-income students. 

“In today’s economy, access to higher education is one of the best ways to provide students from all backgrounds a ladder to success,”said Senator Coons. “That’s why the federal government invests significant resources into helping low-income and first-generation college students succeed in college. Yet despite this investment, our higher education system is failing to deliver results for the students who need it most. Our graduation rates are too low and too many resource-rich colleges have failed to expand access to qualified students who come from low-income backgrounds. Our bill will address both of these issues by holding selective colleges accountable on improving low-income student access, and by providing resources to increase graduation rates at colleges struggling to support their high numbers of low-income students.  We can and must do more to address resource disparities and ensure colleges help all students access and complete a high-quality education.”

“Georgia universities such as Georgia State University have seen success using innovative approaches in reaching more students and helping them graduate,” said Senator Isakson, a member of the Senate Education Committee. “This legislation will help incentivize other colleges and universities to follow suit to ensure quality education is accessible for all who chose to pursue it.”

Currently, the U.S. government spends roughly $180 billion each year in federal student aid and tax benefits to help low- and middle-income students. This aid includes little accountability or basic benchmarks to be met. In addition to basic benchmarks, the federal government does not do a good job targeting resources to where they are needed most.  Despite the significant federal investment in the higher education system, U.S. college graduation rates are currently among the lowest in the developed world. 

The Access, Success, and Persistence In Reshaping Education Act would help set benchmarks and priorities while also rewarding institutions that are already on the right track when it comes to access and completion. The bill would make additional competitive funding available for completion efforts, with priority for minority-serving institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Finally, it enables high-performing institutions on access and completion to apply for non-financial rewards, such as bonus points in federal competitive grants or a reduced regulatory burden.

Highlights of the Access, Success, and Persistence In Reshaping Education (ASPIRE) Act:

  • Completely self-financing, requiring no new appropriations.
  • The bottom 5 percent of institutions based on percentages of enrolled first-time, full-time Pell Grant recipients are given at least four years to improve access, or risk paying a penalty.  Penalties collected are then used to fund completion improvement efforts.
  • The bottom 5 percent of institutions based on six-year graduation rates that choose to opt-in to the bill’s completion standards would receive significant funding and at least five years to develop and implement plans to improve completion, or risk paying back that funding plus a fine.
  • Up to $200 million a year would be devoted to graduation efforts.
  • Institutions would not prescribe improvement strategies—institutions must create their own plans.

Click here for the full bill text.

Click here for a one-pager on the bill.

Click here for a section-by-section summary of the bill.

Full list of supporting organizations:

  • American Student Assistance
  • Education Reform Now
  • HBCU Collective
  • Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP)
  • National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO)
  • National College Access Network
  • National Education Association (NEA)
  • Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC)
  • The Education Trust
  • Third Way
  • Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF)
  • Georgia State University
  • Delaware Charter Schools Network
  • Delaware State University
  • Goldey-Beacom College
  • Wesley College
  • Widener University
  • Wilmington University 
  • University of California
  • College Summit


American Student Assistance Director of Consumer Advocacy, Kevin Fudge:

"To survive and thrive in the changing workplace of the 21st century, Americans need the skills gained from postsecondary education more than ever before. For the greater economic strength of both our citizens individually and our nation collectively, it is imperative that all students in the US, regardless of income, have the opportunity for access, success and persistence in education beyond high school."

Education Reform Now Advocacy President, Shavar Jeffries:

“Senator Coons' and Isakson's ASPIRE higher education access and accountability plan is thoughtful and nuanced. The Coons-Isakson plan is thoughtful in using the federal investment in higher education to prod elite colleges to open their doors wider to talented students from low-income families. It's thoughtful in providing additional financial help to under resourced colleges, particularly HBCUs, that currently serve a substantial number of students from low-income families. But the Senators are also tough and nuanced in demanding better performance from colleges, including for those who fail to improve requiring a return of funds. Higher education should not be an accountability-free zone. It's heartening to see bipartisan agreement on the fundamental idea that in higher education, like in K-12 education, we need increased resources and reform in order to get markedly better results for students, families, and the country.” 

HBCU Collective Founder, Robert T. Stephens:

“The HBCU Collective applauds Sen. Coons and Sen. Isakson for introducing legislation that expands access to higher education for low-income students. Education continues to be one of the best pathways low-income students use to pull themselves out of poverty, increase opportunities, and achieve their dreams."

Institute for Higher Education Policy President, Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D:

“Smart policy solutions that help more of today’s students access a college education and earn high-quality degrees can cultivate thriving communities. The ASPIRE Act will help to narrow the access and degree completion inequities that stubbornly persist within our higher education system and enable more hardworking students, regardless of economic status, to pursue a college education. We thank Senator Coons and Senator Isakson for their leadership and commitment to expanding college access and fostering degree completion.”

National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) President and CEO, Dr. Lezli Baskerville:

“The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, NAFEO, is appreciative to Senators Coons and Isakson for heeding NAFEO’s appeal for a bipartisan group of Members of Congress to explore ways of incentivizing a greater number of colleges and universities to educate the growing populations of this nation—low-income and racial and ethnic minority students, and rewarding those institutions graduating disproportionate percentages of the growing populations of the states. The ASPIRE legislation will move the nation toward acknowledging and rewarding institutions like HBCUs and MSIs graduating disproportionate percentages of low-income students, first generation students, and students of color."

National College Access Network Executive Director, Kim Cook:

“NCAN supports the goal of the ASPIRE Act to encourage institutions to increase access for low-income students and to incent completion. Students who attend their best academic fit are most likely to succeed, and encouraging students to expand the number of seats available to low-income students will help more low-income students reach both college and graduation.”

Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) Executive Director, Quyen Dinh:

“SEARAC strongly supports the ASPIRE Act and its goals to increasing low-income students’ access to a post-secondary education and the graduation rates for all students. This proposal helps to address the compounded socio-economic and educational disparities that we know are persisting in Southeast Asian American communities who experience both poverty and lack-of higher education degrees at higher rates than the national average.  We applaud Sen. Coons for introducing a policy solution to stand up for vulnerable students such as Southeast Asian Americans from refugee, immigrant, and low-income communities"

The Education Trust Vice President of Higher Education Policy and Practice, Wil Del Pilar:

“The urgent question for higher education right now is “How can we dramatically increase high-quality degree completion while expanding – not limiting – access among low-income students and students of color?” The ASPIRE Act represents an attempt to answer that question in a cost-neutral way that puts students first and pushes institutions to focus on getting students to graduation.  It will spur wealthier institutions to increase access for low-income students, and it will provide additional resources to drive improvements in colleges and universities -- including minority-serving institutions -- that make commitments to significantly improving outcomes for their students. This kind of forward-thinking legislation is an important step toward making higher education more equitable and effective.”

Third Way Vice President for Social Policy & Politics, Lanae Erickson Hatalsky:

“We are grateful to Senator Coons and Senator Isakson for recognizing that a large number of our nation’s postsecondary institutions are failing to serve as true mobility machines for millions of low- and moderate-income students. Far too many students who enter college today do not graduate, and too many of our elite institutions aren’t doing enough to take in the Pell students who could benefit from their high graduation rates and solid post-graduation outcomes. While the ASPIRE Act may not be able to fix all of these problems overnight, it refocuses attention on both access and completion by incentivizing good schools to open their doors to more low-income students while holding accountable those schools that fail to better their students’ lives.”

Georgia State University President, Mark P. Becker, PhD:

“I congratulate Senators Isakson and Coons for their bipartisan efforts to craft legislation tackling the difficult task of increasing access for students who would otherwise not attend college.  Thousands of qualified students are not entering college, and thousands who do enter leave without a degree.  There is no more important challenge facing higher education today than leveling the playing field for all students.  I thank Senator Isakson for his continued support of Georgia State University and our success in increasing graduation rates by 22 percentage points in recent years.  I look forward to working with Senator Isakson and Senator Coons to make our nation once again the most educated and innovative nation in the world.”

DE Charter Schools Network Executive Director, Kendall Massett and Board President, Chuck Taylor:

“We have charter school leaders that spend 12 years preparing low-income students for college. The ASPIRE Act would help fulfill the promise we make to these students, and show that hard work, discipline and resilience have their rewards." 

Delaware State University President, Dr. Harry L. Williams:

"At Delaware State University, we are committed to retaining and graduating first-generation college students. This commitment is further evidenced by our steady progression on these most-important metrics and our partnerships with private foundations to expand our innovative efforts to retain and graduate our students.  The Completion Bonus Program within the ASPIRE Act further incentivizes institutions to redouble their efforts to boost retention and graduation rates to help make the United States #1 in college completion."

Goldey-Beacom College President Gary L. Wirt Letter of Support

University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis:

“The intent of the ASPIRE Act aligns with the University of Delaware’s commitment to provide an accessible and affordable world-class education to every student, especially those with the greatest financial need. Thousands of Delawareans benefit from UD’s financial aid and academic support, which contribute to above-average retention and graduation rates. We applaud the senators’ efforts to address this complex challenge.” 

Wesley College Provost, Dr. Jeffrey Gibson:

“The ASPIRE Act is key to promoting educational opportunity and access to the nation’s colleges and universities, and Wesley College is proud to support initiatives that increase the higher education options available to students.  Better still, the legislation introduced by Senators Coons and Isakson will further bolster efforts to enhance student success and increase graduation rates.  Each student who succeeds benefits our local communities and the country as a whole.” 

Widener University President Julie E. Wollman:

“As a university leader, I believe it is vital to increase degree completion rates by providing the comprehensive support necessary to achieve this goal.  Furthermore, we must continue our work to optimize access to higher education for all students.  Access and degree completion are essential to the quality of our society and the strength of our nation.” 

Wilmington University President, Dr. LaVerne Harmon:

“The ASPIRE Act is supported by Wilmington University because the intent of this bill is to increase access for low-income and marginalized students to close the completion gap in institutions of higher education. This is critically important to us, since approximately 46 percent of our first-time, full-time students are PELL Grant recipients, and the ASPIRE Act gives students the opportunity to experience a quality education they can afford. Wilmington University is a student-centered organization, and we work diligently to provide for our students sound financial counseling as well as rigorous academic programs that prepare them to make meaningful contributions to their communities and in the workforce. We are committed to offering education to all who seek it, and the ASPIRE Act aligns with our commitment to excellence in teaching, relevancy of curriculum, and individual attention to all students, regardless of their economic limitations.”

University of California President, Janet Napolitano:

“The University of California is proud of its successes in enrolling students from a broad range of family income levels, and of its record in making a difference for low-income students who earn UC degrees.  UC supports the ASPIRE Act’s targeted approach to providing incentives to colleges and universities to increase their enrollment of low-income students, and offering competitive funds to under-resourced institutions trying to improve their rates of student completion.  The University’s exemplary record and strong commitment to educational opportunity for all students are a result of UC’s continuous drive to uphold its mission as a public university, with regard to access, affordability, and educational quality.”