Making college affordable: Eight essential reads

How can college become affordable? Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Editor’s Note: The following is a round-up of archival stories on college affordability.

In the debate on Monday, Sept. 26, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listed “making college debt free,” as part of her plan to build the economy. She said,

“I think building the middle class, investing in the middle class, making college debt-free so more young people can get their education, helping people refinance their debt from college at a lower rate, those are the kinds of things that will really boost the economy, broad-based, inclusive growth.”

In response, a few hours later, the Republican Party put up a fact-check from the Associated Press on its website:

“Clinton has proposed making college tuition free for in-state students who go to a public college or university. But tuition free doesn’t equate to debt free. Under her plan, the government would pay for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities for students from families earning less than $125,000 a year. That would leave students still bearing the cost of room and board, which makes up more than half of the average $18,943 sticker price at a four-year public university, according to the College Board.”

Scholars writing for The Conversation have been looking at the presidential candidates’ higher education proposals for the past many months. Here is how they explain and unpack many of the complexities of the issue.

What the candidates are proposing

Key proposals of Clinton’s US$450 billion plan include eliminating tuition for families with annual incomes under $125,000 and providing a three-month moratorium on federal student loan payments.

Donald Trump’s higher education proposals were outlined by his campaign cochair and policy director, Sam Clovis, during an interview to a higher education website. Trump plans to reform the federal student loan program and provide incentives to universities to enroll more “successful” students. He proposes to have loans come from private lenders, rather than the federal government.

The larger questions that experts at The Conversation have raised are: Who is really affected by college debts? Will colleges raise tuition once the government starts paying? Will this further raise costs at public universities that have suffered budgetary cuts over the last many years? And who will continue to be left out?

Who is at risk

Higher education expert at Seton Hall University Robert Kelchen explains that student debt has increased by several times in just a decade. As of March 2015, Americans owed nearly $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. But, the real crisis, he says, is among students with “relatively little debt but dismal job prospects.”

“Students with low debt amounts and low earnings are disproportionately likely to be dropouts. Sixty-three percent of students who started college in 2003-04 and defaulted on their loans by 2009 were college dropouts, while students with a bachelor’s or associate degree were only 4 percent of defaults.”

Economists David H. Feldman and Robert B. Archibald at the College of William & Mary point to a deeper problem of higher education – that schools serving the underprivileged are becoming increasingly resource-starved.

An analysis conducted by these two scholars found that,

In 1987, public universities spent 88 cents for every dollar that private nonprofit institutions spent on the wages and salaries that drive instruction. By 1999 the ratio had fallen to 81 cents. And by 2010, it had fallen further, to 73 cents on the dollar.

In keeping with findings that low-income students are the ones most affected, they found that the fall in graduation rates is “concentrated” at institutions that are resource-starved.

Donald Heller, professor of higher education at University of San Francisco, expressed similar concerns. He explained that college has become “much less affordable” for those going to public universities or community colleges.

“In the 10 years from 2004 to 2014, the sticker (non-discounted) price of tuition at the average public, four-year university rose 42 percent in real dollars, ie, after discounting for inflation. Community college prices grew 28 percent during this period.”

What’s lacking in the proposals

In analyzing Trump’s higher ed plan, Donald Heller says there would be some “unintended consequences” of enrolling students who are more likely to succeed:

“institutions would be more likely to shy away from enrolling students from disadvantaged families, and those whose academic preparation was weaker…. Such a move would exacerbate the large gaps in college enrollment and degree attainment that already exist in this country. It would lead to even higher rates of income inequality across income and racial groups.”

As for Clinton’s plan, he says, it would involve a large expansion in federal dollars, which could come “at a cost.” An example of this is No Child Left Behind (NCLB), passed during the first term of President George W. Bush. NCLB expanded the role of federal government in K-12 education.

Even the loan repayment option is not likely to benefit many students, says Kelchen. There has been a growth of private refinancing for higher-income students. And for low-income students, there is already an option of income-driven plans.

It’s not just about financial aid

Experts point out financial aid is not the only support that many struggling students need to complete college. About 20 percent of students at four-year public and private colleges and universities are first-generation students who could face multiple challenges.

As Wheelock College’s Linda Banks-Santilli explains,

They may feel they’re abandoning parents or siblings who depend on them. And families too may have conflicted feelings: first-generation college students’ desire for education and upward mobility may be viewed as a rejection of their past.

Many other students too could face challenges that go beyond meeting their tuition needs. For example, University of Pittsburgh scholars Lindsay Page and Stacy S. Kehoe explain how students from low-income backgrounds need more than just financial aid to succeed:

“Many students, and particularly those from low-income backgrounds, face challenges that go beyond simply meeting tuition. Awarding such students with packages that include financial aid bundled with counseling and other support is likely to yield more success in improving overall degree attainment rates. In contrast, universal free tuition would invest fewer resources where they are needed and more where they are not.”

Nonetheless, scholars agree that an issue of importance has found attention in the public sphere. As Heller says,

Whoever goes on to capture the White House in November can best tackle the problem of rising college prices by focusing any additional spending on students who truly need more support from the federal government.

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