At the end of 2022, Congress made a transformative $45 million investment in the Postsecondary Student Success Grants (PSSG) program at the U.S. Department of Education, showing an essential commitment to developing, evaluating, and scaling evidence-based postsecondary student success strategies to help college students complete their credentials and achieve long-term career success.
Building on an initial $5 million of funding the year prior, Congress required the Department to implement this expanded second-round investment through a tiered evidence structure modeled on the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program. The America Forward Coalition has long advocated for the creation of a postsecondary tiered evidence model that would center practitioners and emulate the tremendous EIR program that has supported evidence-building and scale-up for nearly a decade for primary and secondary education programs.
Braven, an America Forward Coalition member organization that works to help underrepresented students complete college and land strong first jobs, knows the importance of this historic program. Every year, 1.3 million low-income students enroll in four-year institutions, yet 900,000 of them won’t graduate and land a strong job that would put them on a path to achieve economic mobility. Worse still, these graduates are earning 66 cents on the dollar compared to their more affluent peers, and this falls to 50 cents on the dollar by mid-career. Institutions need more resources and incentives to provide programming that helps students complete their degrees and see a positive return-on-investment through strong labor market outcomes, and organizations in this space need better evaluation to determine what works and the resources to scale effective programs to close equity gaps. The PSSG program is crucial in these efforts.
Last week, America Forward shared recommendations with the U.S. Department of Education, urging the Department to take advantage of this crucial opportunity to advance a next-generation tiered evidence framework for the PSSG program and building on lessons learned from past tiered evidence funds across policy domains and several strong design choices in the PSSG program’s first round. We focused on two primary recommendations:
First, we emphasized the importance of grant selection criteria that will support equitable, transformative investments in promising and proven programs. We strongly encouraged the Department to continue and expand on several key priorities in the first round of PSSG, including priorities for programs with the potential to improve students’ labor market outcomes. As our outreach in partnership with Braven has shown, policymakers across the aisle recognize the importance of translating completion gains into demonstrated career success in order to provide the most benefit to students.
We also encouraged the Department to build on strategies that have worked to advance equitable outcomes for a range of historically underrepresented groups; to support essential capacity-building among participating organizations; and to extend a recent EIR priority that encourages diverse hiring practices to consider leaders with proximate, lived experience. In addition, we suggested that the Department incentivize cost-effective uses of limited program dollars, such as providing opportunities for more nascent organizations to pursue early-stage projects.
Second, we called on the Department to support formative learning and development of innovative approaches, building on the EIR program’s strong example. We encouraged the Department to invest in early-phase projects to provide for a thriving, evidence ecosystem, alongside much-needed investments in replication and scale-up. We also proposed that the Department encourage rapid-cycle experimentation, support implementation research, and provide technical assistance around formative learning and evaluation.
Moving forward, we are excited by the potential for the PSSG program to support critical investments in evidence-based student success strategies while building the capacity of social innovation organizations who operate them. As Congress considers appropriations for FY24, we encourage legislators to continue this investment and boost PSSG funding to $165 million – recognizing the substantial need and opportunity for practitioner-driven, evidence-based student success efforts.
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