California and the nation as a whole are pushing for more students to graduate from college in four years. This would not only open up more spots for new students, but also allow students to spend less money on tuition and fees and enter the workforce sooner―creating benefits for both students and the state.
In the graduating class of 2015, 64% of UC and 19% of CSU students graduated within four years. While both systems have made commendable gains since the graduating class of 2005―UC’s on-time graduation rate is 10 percentage points higher and CSU’s has increased by 6 points―there is room for improvement.
We recently looked at the University of Hawai‘i’s 15 to Finish campaign, which has shown early success in encouraging students to take more units per semester and improving on-time graduation rates. However, not all students can take 15 units every semester—and this inability can increase their time to completion. For example, a student who takes 12 or 13 units each semester needs an additional year to complete a four-year degree.
One possible way to help lower-income students graduate on time is to bring back the year-round Pell Grant, which was introduced in the 2009–10 academic year to supplement the original Federal Pell program. The year-round grant allowed students who had exhausted their academic-year Pell awards to pay for summer courses as long as at least one of the units counted toward the next academic year. Funding was also available to students who had not completed the standard unit load due to unforeseen circumstances, allowing them to catch up during the summer. Either way, the year-round Pell provided students unable to take 15 units a semester a pathway to graduate on time.
The year-round Pell was cut in 2011 in response to rising costs—a result of more students becoming eligible and enrolling in college. This cut was part of a compromise that prevented proposed reductions in the maximum award amount from occurring. Because the year-round program was short-lived, we can’t assess its impact. Congress has shown some interest in reviving the year-round Pell, but lawmakers have not passed a bill restoring it, as the Senate and House have differing views on bringing it back.
Given the current focus on improving both student completion and institutional efficiency, it may be time to take another look at a year-round Pell Grant program. Providing more opportunities, especially affordable ones, for summer coursework could help more students graduate on time, make better use of campuses, and help California—and the rest of the nation—meet future demand for educated workers.
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