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Making College Affordable Remains a High Priority in Washington

More states are providing free college tuition, but equity concerns remain when it comes to the costs of textbooks, transportation and housing.

jar filled with money, labeled

At a recent Senate hearing, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said his Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee isn't going to start work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act until next year, but a Sept. 27 Bipartisan Policy Center event kicked off discussions on what components of the law should be changed. The most pressing issue concerns the equity debate as more colleges offer students free tuition or scholarships.

"Policies, programs and institutions that are not developed with equity as a central feature don't have equitable outcomes," said Scott Jenkins, strategy director of the Lumina Foundation.

Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, agreed with Jenkins on the topic of equity and added that risk sharing is also important for low-income students and students of color.

"We need incentives for graduating low-income students and students of color," Jones said. "Our systems are risky and we have made choices that systematically disadvantage some students."

James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, floated the idea of gainful employment as a standard to help students who can't afford high student loan rates.

"The answer is not to give students of color loans that they can't repay," Kvaal said.

Part of the problem is the length of time that it takes students to obtain degrees, which can make it hard to change policy every few years.

"Cohort default rates take a long time to mature since students are in school a long time," said Betty Vandenbosch, chancellor of Purdue University Global. "If we keep changing measures, we won't know if what we are doing has an impact. You can't tell next week if you are doing a good job today."

Vandenbosch, who runs the Purdue University system's formidable online institution, said tuition rates are also hard to measure since no student is paying the "rack rate." "The return on educational investment depends on if students are doing experimental learning and bringing in credits," she said.

Another problem: The traditional financial aid system is not designed to accommodate students who don't fit the typical profile of coming straight out of high school.

"The majority of American college students are older adults and aid isn't structured for them," said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity. "We need to think about how to invest in adults and how to support them."

To help members of Congress rethink the Higher Education Act, the Bipartisan Policy Center has established a Task Force on Higher Education Financing and Student Outcomes. The task force is chaired by George Miller and Buck McKeon, who are both former chairmen of the House Education and Workforce Committee.

"In order for the United States to maintain a world-class higher education system, government must be responsive to this changing landscape. We must think creatively about how to address the serious challenges facing the system: rising costs and debt, stagnant outcomes, and an outmoded policy framework that is ill-equipped to promote accountability and serve an evolving student body," the chairmen wrote in a letter announcing the creation of the task force.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe covering education policy and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

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