WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) reintroduced legislation 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, 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.  Especially considering the inequities in college access that have come to light in recent months, we must do more to address resource disparities and ensure colleges help all students access and complete a high-quality education.”

“As the first person in my family to receive a college degree, I understand the challenges that first-generation college students go through. While a record number of students from low-income families are attending college across the country, more must be done to ensure these students successfully graduate with a degree,” said Senator Rosen. “This legislation would dedicate more resources towards helping low-income and first-generation college students graduate. I’m proud to support the ASPIRE Act, which would create a new grant program that prioritizes eligible minority-serving institutions, such as UNLV, and help these students get the support they need to succeed.”

Currently, the U.S. government spends roughly $160 billion each year in federal student aid and tax benefits to help low- and middle-income students. This aid comes with little accountability or basic benchmarks to be met. In addition to that loose framework, 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 nonprofit and public 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.

Click here for quotes from various stakeholders. 

The Access, Success, and Persistence In Reshaping Education Act is supported by Education Reform Now, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the National Education Association, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, The Education Trust, Third Way, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Delaware Charter Schools Network, Delaware State University, Goldey-Beacom College, Wesley College, Widener University, Wilmington University, the University of California, Peer Forward (formerly College Summit), South Carolina State University, and Lincoln University.