EVERYONE, from President Barack Obama to Rep. Paul Ryan to Bill Gates, seems to have an idea for improving the Federal Pell Grant Program for higher education.
Worthy though some of these efforts may be, none reveals the crux of the problem:
A huge proportion of this $40 billion annual federal investment is flowing to people who simply aren't prepared to do college-level work.
This is perverting higher education's mission, suppressing completion rates and warping the country's K-12 system.
About two-thirds of low-income community college students - and one-third of poor students at four-year colleges - need remedial (aka "developmental") education, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit group.
But it's not working: Less than 10 percent of students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years, and just 35 percent of remedial students earn a four-year degree within six years.
What if the government decreed that three years hence, students would be eligible for Pell aid only if enrolled in credit-bearing college courses, thus disqualifying remedial education for support?
One could foresee various possible outcomes.
Let's start with the positive. Ambitious, low-income high-school students would know that if they want to attend college at public expense (probably their only option), they would first need to become "college-ready."
This would provide a clear sign and incentives for them to work hard, take college-prep classes and raise their reading and math skills to the appropriate level.
To be considered successful, the high schools serving these young people would need to get their college-bound students to a college-ready level, not just get them to graduation.
They might offer more college-prep courses, especially for those pupils with the most promise, and make sure the teachers are up to the task.
Likewise, state officials concerned about college completion would be prodded to ensure that their high schools produce college-ready graduates, maybe boosting graduation standards accordingly.
Better yet, they might start to include college matriculation and graduation rates in their high-school accountability systems.
As for colleges, without a federal funding stream for remedial education, many would decide to become more selective, admitting only students who are ready for credit-bearing courses.
This would probably raise the academic tenor of the institution, for students and professors alike.
And with fewer students using Pell aid, we could afford to make each grant more generous, removing financial barriers that force well-prepared low-income students to leave before graduation, or not to come at all.
In sum, disqualifying the use of Pell grants for remedial education would substantially reduce the gap between the number of students entering higher education and the number completing degrees.