The idea of free college is currently dominating headlines and the 2020 Democratic primary race. And for good reason: Americans now collectively owe $1.6 trillion in student debt. But supporting today’s students requires more than plans for offering free tuition or debt relief.
More students than ever before are now going to college. They are also far more diverse than the college students of just two decades ago. Nearly 40 percent of today’s college students are older than 25. A quarter of them are parents, and nearly 60 percent of students balance work and their college studies. About half of them are first-generation students.
But far too many of these students never actually earn a degree. Nearly half of students who start college do not graduate within six years. While higher education’s historical focus on widening access has opened the doors to college for millions, the support systems we have in place are inadequate to help today’s students actually succeed once they are there. Colleges, universities, and policymakers must focus more intently on completion and retention — and that will require developing updated policies and practices beyond those centered on access and tuition costs.
Lower Textbook Costs Through Open Resources
Every year, a typical student must spend about $1,200 on books and academic supplies. But more than half of college students cannot afford to buy or rent these required materials, forgoing the resources they need to succeed in a course. Open educational resources — free digital textbooks or other media — can help reduce these costs. Research has shown that students who have access to such resources can save as much as $120 per course. Colleges should encourage their faculty to use these materials and create policies that can help them identify high-quality resources.
Address Student Hunger
It is difficult to say just how many college students are experiencing food insecurity, but some studies suggest that as many as 56 percent of community college students and 11 percent of all students are going hungry. At the same time, just 3 percent of students are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), despite 18 percent of students being eligible. Colleges should help more low-income students with zero EFC of potential eligibility to understand if they are eligible for food assistance, and policy should be updated to create a stronger connection between FAFSA and SNAP benefits for college students. Institutions should also establish free food pantries on their campuses, a trend that is already picking up steam.
Support Student Parents
For the nearly 5 million college students that are parents, child care is a necessity for their success. Facing strenuous time and financial demands, more than half of student parents do not graduate within six years. As average child care costs have risen to $9,000 per child, the number of on-campus child care services has fallen. Colleges and universities must either work to offer low-cost child care on campus or establish relationships with local child care providers that can provide parents with affordable options. Policy should encourage institutions to create partnerships with local child care providers to offer care for student parents who might need last-minute care for their children. Existing programs supporting student parents on campus should continue to be funded at robust levels.
Thousands of Pell-eligible seniors leave college without graduating each year because they face financial shortfalls of less than $1,000. They have worked for years toward their degree, only to have a small campus fee stand between them and their diploma. Policy should create more pathways for colleges to provide students-in-need with microgrants to help them in times of financial hardship. Institutions should establish clear policies that allow students who have completed at least three-quarters of their degree program to receive grants of $2,000 or less.
If we are to help today’s increasingly diverse students succeed, we must work to address the many non-tuition costs that are preventing them from reaching graduation. We must provide them with programs, policies, and supports designed for today’s students.