Education Reform Must Embrace College Affordability, Experts Say

Posted By Eliana Osborn on June 28, 2016 at 7:35 am
Education Reform Must Embrace College Affordability, Experts Say

A new report from the Center for American Progress compares the effectiveness of the Affordable Care Act with 2010 changes to higher education under President Obama’s watch. Its findings: Increased Pell Grant dollars for low-income students have not boosted college affordability. College expenses continue to rise, and aid—at best—is holding steady.

The Case for Higher Education Affordability Standards posits that aid should cover a set of goods rather than set of money. For example, federal financial assistance would pay for the cost of two years of community college at whatever the current price is. No cash left to come up with and none left over; the aid would not be a dollar amount. This guarantee is what CAP refers to as affordability.

Currently, Pell grant amounts are the same nationwide no matter the actual cost of school attendance. Summarizing the CAP report, authors explain the problem with this system. “In California community colleges, for example, where prices are low or nonexistent for most attendees, the federal benefits are more than enough to cover tuition and can also put a dent in living expenses. But in a more expensive state such as New Hampshire, federal grants and loans combined may not be enough to even pay for direct academic costs. And there is no guarantee the places where federal aid currently is sufficient will stay that way—a few lean years could easily result in California community colleges becoming much less affordable.”

The solution? Follow the examples set by ACA for insurance and HUD housing subsidy programs. Housing vouchers are not for a set amount of money; a family is expected to spend 30% of its income on rent and utilities, so the aid is figured appropriately based on individual circumstances.

Several aspects of higher education financing would need to be renovated under the CAP proposal. The most controversial may be the idea of sharing the costs with outside interests—not just the federal government.

Recognizing the logistical challenges of requiring affordability outside the public sector, CAP suggests private colleges would have debt affordability standards based on post-graduation earning potential. Such machinations highlight the difficulty of overhauling not just federal aid but maintaining the independence of colleges and universities to set their costs.

The CAP report relies heavily on the leveraging power of the federal government to influence school. Certainly the current system of aid is not sustainable, but the affordability principles outlined in the report could start the discussion toward finding a workable framework.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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