Sens. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, and Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, recently reintroduced bipartisan legislation in the Senate 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, will spur the nation’s institutions of higher education to enroll more low-income students and to ensure that these students actually graduate with a degree. The bill devotes resources to help boost completion rates at institutions that serve disproportionately high numbers of low-income students.

“In today’s economy, access to higher education is one of the best ways to provide students from all backgrounds a ladder to success,” Coons said. “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 too low, and too many resource-rich colleges have failed to expand access to qualified 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 resource disparities and ensure colleges help all students access and complete a high-quality education.”

Currently, the U.S. government spends about $180 billion each year in federal student aid and tax benefits to help low- and middle-income students. This aid includes little accountability or basic benchmarks to be met. In addition to basic benchmarks, the federal government does not do a good 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.

The ASPIRE Act would help set benchmarks and priorities while also rewarding institutions that are already on the right track when it comes to access and completion. The bill would make additional competitive funding available for completion efforts, with priority for minority-serving institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Finally, it enables high-performing institutions on access and completion to apply for nonfinancial rewards, such as bonus points in federal competitive grants or a reduced regulatory burden.

Highlights of the act:

— 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 improvement 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 back that funding plus a fine.

— Up to $200 million a year would be devoted to graduation efforts.

— Institutions would not prescribe improvement strategies; institutions must create their own plans.