By Jon Marcus
New England Center for Investigative Journalism
---- — Leonardo Casillas is only a junior at Lynn Classical High School and has yet to apply to college, but the state of Massachusetts has already given him a scholarship.
Casillas, 17, is one of a select 25 students this year who received the Christian Herter Memorial Scholarship, part of more than $127 million a year in taxpayer-funded scholarships, grants, no-interest loans and tuition waivers provided to students attending public or private colleges in or out of state.
The son of a single mother of four, Casillas is planning to use the money to study engineering or the sciences. And he has no doubt he’ll finish college.
“Of course I’m going to get a degree,” Casillas said. “I have an obligation to my mother. I have an obligation to my school. I have an obligation to the people who have helped me.”
But until recently the state didn’t know whether recipients of any of that $127 million a year in scholarships, grants and other aid ever actually graduated. It now tracks those students attending public colleges and universities. But state officials still have no way of tracking whether students who accept state-funded financial aid for private colleges and universities — 40 percent of the total — ever get degrees.
Of the full-time, degree-seeking recipients of MASSGrant financial aid who started public colleges and universities in 2005—the first group the state has followed through the process — 17.5 percent finished two-year associate’s degrees within three years. Just over 60 percent earned four-year bachelor’s degrees within six years, according to records provided to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting by the Department of Higher Education.
That’s not significantly different from the graduation rates of other Massachusetts students, said Jonathan Keller, the state’s associate commissioner of higher education for research and planning.
“For decades, higher education has been about access, and no one really focused on whether anybody graduated,” said Stan Jones, president of the advocacy organization Complete College America. “I guess we assumed that they did. But as people looked closer, it appeared that they didn’t.”
The nearly $11 billion a year that states collectively provide in grants for college students, which comes on top of more than $36 billion in federal grants, “has so far been a one-sided partnership,” said Jones, a former commissioner of higher education in Indiana. “The states provide the funds,” he said, “but the expectations states have of students are really pretty low.”
Massachusetts spent $86.9 million on grants and scholarships and $40.2 million on no-interest loans, tuition waivers and other aid in the 2009-2010 academic year, the last period for which the figures are available, according to the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs. That’s up 43 percent in five years.
Now, as policymakers struggle to boost the number of people with degrees, state officials have begun a small pilot program that will try to leverage financial aid to encourage recipients to graduate.
“We shouldn’t view financial aid simply as an entitlement,” said Richard Freeland, the Massachusetts commissioner of higher education, who said he was speaking for only himself and not the Board of Higher Education.
“I believe that it is reasonable to think of financial aid to some degree as a social contract between the state and the student,” said Freeland, former president of Northeastern University. “The state is saying we are investing in you because not only is it important to you, but it is important to the state.”
Under the pilot program, launched in the fall at 11 campuses, students get more money for taking more courses — up to an additional $2,000 a year. Those campuses are the University of Massachusetts at Boston and Lowell; Fitchburg, Framingham, and Salem state universities; Springfield Tech; as well as Bunker Hill, Mass. Bay, Massasoit, Middlesex and Quinsigamond community colleges.
Research by Complete College America and others shows that taking a full complement of courses helps speed up graduation. Yet 72 percent of full-time community college students nationwide, and 30 percent of students at four-year universities, take fewer than the recommended 24 credits in their freshman years, and quickly fall behind, Complete College America reports.
The Massachusetts program so far involves a modest 2,000 of the 44,000 annual recipients of state grants, no-interest loans and tuition waivers. It will run on this small scale until 2016, when the results will be analyzed, officials said.
State officials and many experts caution that it’s unrealistic to expect every college student to graduate. Some find college isn’t for them. Others may drop out to start a business, they say.
Raising graduation rates, however, has become a goal of federal and state politicians, employers and foundations worried about a potential shortage of college-educated workers.
In Massachusetts, about half of residents have associate’s degrees or higher, a number Complete College America says will have to rise to 70 percent by the end of this decade to meet the expected demand.
Low graduation rates are already taking a significant economic toll, according to calculations by the American Institutes for Research, or AIR. A single class of students it studied nationwide, who started four-year universities and colleges in 2002 but never graduated, has lost out on a collective $3.8 billion in lifetime income, the institute estimates.
There are also concerns that, with pressure to curb government spending, financial-aid programs will be vulnerable to budget cuts if they can’t be shown to boost graduation rates.
Some in academia, however, worry that a single-minded focus on graduation rates could force universities to significantly ease degree requirements, or accept only those applicants who are most likely to graduate, rather than taking risks on seemingly marginal students with potential.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting ( www.necir-bu.org ) is a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University and supported in part by New England media outlets that include The Eagle-Tribune.
Massachusetts financial aid and graduation rates :Number of Massachusetts students in 2009-2010 receiving state scholarships, grants, no-interest loans, and tuition waivers: 43,988 Total state financial aid, 2009-2010: $127.1 million Five-year increase: 43 percent Average amount per student: $769 Proportion of first-time, full-time degree-seeking MASSGrant recipients who enrolled at public community colleges in 2005 and graduated within three years with two-year associate's degrees: 17.5 percent State average: 14.3 percent National average: 13.9 percent National average for low-income students: 11.8 percent Proportion of first-time, full-time degree-seeking MASSGrant recipients who enrolled at public universities in 2005 and graduated within six years with four-year bachelor's degrees: 61.3 percent State average: 57.8 percent National average: 55.7 percent National average for low-income students: 48.2 percent Sources: State Department of Higher Education, Complete College America, National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs, National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators