Senators Coons, Isakson Introduce Legislation to Increase College Access and Graduation Rates

Bill backed by Education Reform Now, Education Trust, Institute for Higher Education Policy, Third Way, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, Delaware State University and Georgia State University, among others.

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) today introduced 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 for short, will spur some of the nation’s more selective institutions to improve access for low-income students and will devote resources to help boost completion rates at institutions that serve disproportionately high numbers of low-income students. 


Specifically, the ASPIRE Act gives more selective colleges with lower numbers of low-income students four years to boost low-income student enrollment or pay a fee to participate in the federal college loan program. High-access, low-performing colleges would have the option to get up to $8 million over five years to improve student outcomes. These resources — which are generated through the fees collected from schools that do not improve low-income student enrollment and will not come from new taxpayers dollars — are to be accompanied with new bare minimum completion standards, applicable to all four-year institutions choosing to participate in federal financial aid programs.

“In today’s economy, access to higher education is one of the surest 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 abysmally low and too many resource-rich colleges have failed to expand access to 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 resources disparities and ensure colleges help all students access and complete a high-quality education.”

“Accessing quality, affordable higher education should be part of the American dream for those who choose to pursue it,” said Senator Isakson, a member of the Senate education committee. “We’re working to even the playing field to make sure that’s a reality for students of all economic backgrounds at every college and university in the country. We’re modeling this new initiative after schools such as Georgia State University, which has opened its doors to more students while offering innovative ways to make tuition more affordable and creating a path to success for its students.”

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 — money that flows to universities with little to no strings attached. For example, the federal government doesn’t require colleges to meet basic benchmarks, such as making sure they actually graduate students or ensuring that their institutions are really accessible to all qualified students.  In addition to basic benchmarks, the federal government does a poor 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. Click here for a full report.


The bill also rewards institutions that are already on the right track when it comes to access and completion by making additional competitive funding available for completion efforts, with priority for minority-serving institutions. 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.

  • The bill is 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 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 a penalty and eventual loss of Title IV eligibility for new students for three years.
  • Under the bill, up to $200 million a year would be devoted to graduation efforts.
  • The bill would not prescribe improvement strategies—institutions must create their own plans.

Click here for the full bill text.


College Summit Co-Founder & CEO, Keith Frome:
“Closing the college graduation gap between low-income and high-income students is a key civil rights issue of our time. The ASPIRE Act would encourage quality institutions to open their doors to more low-income students and highlight and amplify those institutions that serve such students well, enabling them to earn the vital credential of a college degree. For most low-income students, such a degree is their only path to job security, income stability, and the chance to lead a long and fulfilling life.”

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.”

Education Reform Now President, Shavar Jeffries:
“At a time when we’re on the verge of an even larger taxpayer investment in making college more affordable for millions, we need to ensure that colleges themselves are doing their part to graduate students with the skills they need to secure their, and collectively, our country’s economic future.  Higher education should not be an accountability-free zone.” 

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.”

Institute for Higher Education Policy President, Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D.:
“Ensuring that all students, but especially those from working- and middle-class families, have the opportunity to enroll and graduate from four-year institutions is essential.  The ASPIRE Act recognizes the importance of these institutions and provides solutions that will amplify an institution’s commitment to access, success, and graduation for all its students.”

Morehouse College President, John Wilson:
“The ASPIRE Act is sure to make a meaningful difference in our Nation’s higher education system.  Not only is it scaled to be consequential, but its emphasis on outcomes and accountability will ensure that it becomes a force for good in America!”

National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) President and CEO, Dr. Lezli Baskerville:
“The ASPIRE legislation will begin an important discussion that can 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.”

The Education Trust Vice President for Higher Education Policy and Practice, José Luis Santos, PhD:
“The ASPIRE Act focuses attention on two critical issues in higher education: increasing access for low-income students and supporting students through graduation. The data show that low-income students today enroll in postsecondary education at rates lower than high-income students did in the mid-1970s.  And, students from high-income families are roughly three times as likely as students from low-income families to obtain a bachelor’s degree eight years after leaving high school. Because a college degree is the surest way for individual upward social mobility and key in today’s economy, these trends must be changed with a renewed sense of urgency in order to increase educational opportunity for those that have the greatest need. We very much appreciate Senator Coons and Senator Isakson for their work to address these issues.”

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 are not 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 is a step in the right direction—incentivizing good schools to open their doors to more low-income students and holding accountable those schools that are not fulfilling their promise to better their students’ lives.”

Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.:
“The Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) supports the ASPIRE Act and the efforts of Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Johnny Isakson  (R-GA) to make more resources available to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to improve college access, and services for students.”

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.”

University of Delaware Vice President for Enrollment Management, Chris Lucier:
“We applaud the bill’s intent to promote access and higher graduation rates for students with the greatest financial need. The intent is consistent with the University’s financial aid commitment through the “Commitment to Delawareans” and our new test optional policy, both of which are promoting access to thousands of Delawareans, as well as our investments in technology and staff to increase the retention and graduation rates for all students, particularly those from underrepresented and underserved populations.” 

Widener University President, Dr. Julie E. Wollman:
“It is critical to encourage university leaders to do all that they can to enhance degree completion rates and to recognize the urgency to act to that end, for the students and society.  Our nation’s future rests upon our shared success in educating our post-secondary students and providing the resulting opportunities for lifetime achievement and contributions to society. Fundamentally, university leaders must assure degree completion for students who start and aim to complete a college education.”

Wilmington University President, Dr. Jack P. Varsalona:
“Wilmington University fully supports the ASPIRE Act because it protects many of the students for whom this university was established. The bill ensures that students will get what they pay for:  rigorous and challenging course work in solid degree programs at an affordable price. About 46% of our first time, full time students are PELL Grant recipients. Wilmington University is committed to making higher education affordable, ensuring our students are provided financial counseling and doing everything in our power to remove common barriers to a high quality education. The Aspire Act aligns well with this university’s mission and rich history of enabling student access to programs that can ultimately lead to greater student success.”

Full List of Supporters:

  • College Summit
  • Delaware State University
  • Education Reform Now
  • Georgia State University
  • Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP)
  • Morehouse College
  • National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO)
  • TeenSHARP
  • The Education Trust
  • Third Way
  • Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF)
  • University of California
  • Widener University
  • Wilmington University