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We need to expand the college affordability conversation

We need to expand the college affordability conversation
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The fact that student loan debt has surpassed $1.6 trillion has driven much of the national education conversation over the past year. It’s a daunting number, but the current prominent policy debate on how to address the student debt crisis focuses on two issues — free college and debt forgiveness. Such a debate overlooks critical steps between entering college and paying off student debt. As Americans begin to vote for candidates of their choice, they need to hear a broader vision for higher education than much of the national narrative has portrayed thus far.

The realities of the college experience have changed dramatically since the last Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEA) reauthorization in 2008. For example, the profile of students going to college, the amount of family income needed to pay the full cost of attendance, and the rising need for a postsecondary credential to compete in the U.S. job market all make for a more challenging environment. Higher education policy simply has not kept up. 

Here are three areas of higher education policy that need more national attention:

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Understanding today’s student profile: While the common image of a college student may be of a white, 18-year-old recent high school graduate living on campus at a four-year college with financial support from their family, this vision reflects a steadily shrinking share of the undergraduate population. Nearly 60 percent of students are working adults, about 40 percent are older than 25, and over 40 percent are students of color. Nearly one in four college students is a parent.

Researchers recently found nearly 2 million student parents are single mothers; 90 percent of this population lives at or near the federal poverty line. Along with veterans who are students, people who have experienced the criminal justice system, and students with disabilities, the increasingly diverse student population requires updated policies and on-campus practices to ensure better graduation rates and workforce outcomes. Our organizations have joined the Today’s Students Coalition to promote these policy solutions.

Simplifying financial aid: Many families worry about the cost of college, but they also find themselves having to navigate a lengthy, complex process to access financial aid. For many reasons, millions of students who are eligible for aid don't file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year, leaving money — including $24 billion annually in total aid — on the table that could support their postsecondary education. One-quarter of the more than 100 FAFSA questions apply to less than 1 percent of all filers. While stronger IRS and Department of Education data-sharing, made possible by the recently passed FUTURE Act, will autofill some questions, much more can be done to simplify the FAFSA.

After filing the FAFSA, students and families receive financial aid offers from colleges and universities. Unfortunately, research has shown that these offers often are so confusing, vague or incomplete that families are unable to make informed decisions about which institution to attend. Policymakers can take action to standardize terms used in aid offers and help prospective students better understand and compare their options. 

Meeting students’ basic needs: Students face longer odds to graduate when they skip meals or lack consistent housing. In a recent survey of students, almost half of respondents reported being food insecure and over half faced housing insecurity or homelessness. These issues keep students from making timely progress toward their degree, or even graduating altogether. 

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As a growing number of states adopt policies covering tuition, costs for housing, food and transportation continue to strain students’ budgets. And while students can use financial aid to cover living costs, most don’t receive enough funding to do so. For example, about 80 percent of students at public four-year colleges have an unmet need of $14,400 after receiving grant aid. The national education debate should include how to address this gap, such as additional investments in the Pell Grant program and helping students receive the aid for which they already qualify

Without a focus on the reality between college enrollment and student debt repayment, the total student loan debt will only continue to grow. We know that presidential candidates are aware of the challenges today’s students face, and several have good ideas for addressing them. But voters need to hear those ideas more to make an informed decision about who will be best positioned to put policies in place to better support students toward realizing their goals and preparing for the workforce.

Deborah A. Santiago is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Excelencia in Education. Rachel Fleischer is executive director of Young Invincibles. Kim Cook is executive director of the National College Attainment Network.