College plays a powerful role in achieving the American dream

I am an unlikely president of an liberal arts college. But as the son of a coal miner, a first-generation college student, and someone who works with college kids every day, I know firsthand the transformative power of higher education in America. I have witnessed how it breaks the cycle of poverty and dependence to develop leaders in all walks of life.

Every parent wants their child to do better than they did, a feat that is getting harder and harder, and a college degree was the pivot point for me and for millions of others. Now, in the face of rising artificial intelligence eliminating routine and low-skill work, that education is more valuable and more vital than ever.

{mosads}This is why I have such grave concerns about elements of the Higher Education Act as it wends its way through Congress. While I am not opposed to college accountability, I am concerned about the impact that several of these elements will have on so many students. The current House bill eliminates the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, meant for the poorest families in America, and converts those funds to federal work study program.

This could sacrifice up to $4,000 annually for the estimated 1.1 million students that received a Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant award this year. Had this bill passed in its current form when I was a student, I would not have been able to complete a degree or achieve my version of the American dream. For me to afford college, I worked a full-time job, did the maximum 10 hours of federal work study, and used my Pell and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants to pay for tuition.

Under the current legislation, I would have simply lost that money because I was, as the majority students across the nation are, already working every hour of federal work study allowed. Students around the country could be facing a similar choice of deciding whether they have the resources to continue their path toward a degree, a choice that could impact our country for generations.

For the first time in our history, Congress is also contemplating charging low-income undergraduate students interest while they are still in school. The additional thousands of dollars in fees this creates would have stopped my education in the tracks and will likely have the same chilling effect on current and future students. I might well have had to default on my loans and continue in the workforce without the education and skills that so dramatically altered my trajectory. I shudder to multiply that by the 42 million people that have used student loans to finance their education.

Another proposal would move Federal Financial Aid from the institution level, on which the university qualifies, to the program level, on which a department or major must qualify on its own. This could have enormous unintended consequences. The concept here is that if a program does not produce enough immediately successful graduates, then future students in that major can no longer qualify for federal financial aid.

Perhaps the idea is that schools might offer differential pricing by major. An engineering major might cost $40,000 while a philosophy major could be $10,000. In that case, students who do not have the means to pay for college would only be eligible to major in certain programs, making equal access regardless of income — the very premise of the Higher Education Act — a pipe dream rather than the American dream.

In any case, short-term measures are poor indicators of college success. I majored in music at a liberal arts college but am now a college president. The creativity and critical thinking skills of a liberal arts degree prepare our young people for a life that is much more than just a first job. Are we penalizing students for curiosity?

Helping students and families afford a transformational education is on all of us. At my university, 20 percent of our students are Pell Grant eligible and receive similar financial aid from our institution. More than a third of our budget is dedicated to financial aid and we institutionally award five times the financial aid of the federal government, even when including loans. Nationally, private colleges provide $32 billion in institutional aid. These are not handouts. They are handups for a successful future.

This legislation will shape higher education for years to come and, fortunately, there is much to like in these bills. I am very supportive of the Pell Grant bonus for students who take 15 credits per semester. I support the elimination of origination fees on student loans and many of the deregulatory ideas in the Higher Education Act.

But if college is to be a truly transformative pathway to the American dream, we need to examine carefully the unintended impact of each element of them. Every student, and America’s future, deserves no less.

Mark McCoy is president of DePauw University.

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