3 Ways Federal Policy Solutions Can Level the Playing Field in Higher Education and the Economy

Education and the economy are two of the top five issues for 2020 voters. So, it’s no surprise that presidential hopefuls are offering plans to reduce college costs and forgive student debt. Or that Republicans and Democrats in Congress are currently trying to overhaul the long-expired Higher Education Act, which President Johnson signed into law in 1965 during the Civil Rights Movement.  

Today, even though the U.S. population is becoming increasingly diverse, Black and Latino adults are less likely to hold a college degree than White adults did in 1990, and are underrepresented at public colleges and universities in nearly every state. Meanwhile, two-thirds of U.S. jobs require education beyond high school as the price of college climbs higher and higher.  The idea of working one’s way through college stems from a bygone era. Since the minimum wage has stagnated in most states, students from low-income backgrounds face a college affordability gap that puts them between a rock and a hard place: work more hours to try to meet college costs or risk mortgaging their future by taking on unreasonable student debt, which hits Black students particularly hard. 

For these reasons, policymakers and presidential candidates must carve clear and affordable pathways to higher education for all Americans. Voters are demanding it, and our economy needs a more educated populace to be strong.  At minimum, every politician and policymaker should have a three-part, equity-focused higher education plan: 

  1. Increase need-based financial aid, so college is affordable for students and families who struggle the most to pay
  2. Ensure transparency and accountability to protect students and promote equity 
  3. Scale up proven and promising supports that help students complete college


Increase need-based aid

Each year, nearly 8 million students from low-income backgrounds receive a Pell Grant to offset the cost of college. Almost half of them are in families earning $15,000 or less each year. And yet the Pell Grant is at its lowest purchasing power in four decades — covering less than a third of the full cost to attend a public four-year college. Some populations are denied access to Pell altogether, limiting access to higher education and economic mobility for millions.  

To make up for this loss, Congress should at least double the maximum Pell Grant and peg it to inflation so it doesn’t lose value again. Congress also should lift the ban on Pell Grants for students who are incarcerated (one of the few areas where there is real bipartisan support), expand Pell Grant access to undocumented students, and eliminate question 23 on the FAFSA. Any efforts to forgive student loans should first help borrowers with the least income and wealth and address the Black student debt crisis, where outsized debt loads are hurting millions of African Americans. 


Ensure transparency and accountability

The latest college accreditation scandal should be a wake-up call that oversight is essential. The federal government has a responsibility to ensure colleges are serving students, safeguarding public dollars, and advancing equity. 

To keep out bad actors that harm students, Congress should codify the “gainful employment” rule and strengthen the “90/10” requirement. Both rules help ensure that educational programs are helping students succeed in the workplace, not just being saddled with debt for worthless degrees. But just preventing abuse is too low a bar. Congress should set up a robust student-level data network to inform students, families, and policymakers. The College Transparency Act is a good place to start. 

In exchange for additional investment, equity-focused incentives, and time to improve, colleges deserve rewards for student success and penalties for underperformance. 


Scale up student supports

Only half of Latino students and students with Pell Grants who start a bachelor’s degree ever complete their degree. Among Black and Native students, it’s just 4 in 10. Success rates for these students are even worse at underfunded community and technical colleges. Colleges that graduate Black and Latino students at high rates are the exception, not the rule.

Good news: There are proven and promising models for helping students cross the finish line. The CUNY ASAP program doubled graduation rates and increased transfer rates by providing students a set of wrap-around supports beyond help with tuition and fees, including transportation assistance, free textbooks, and tailored advising. It wasn’t a fluke. Three community colleges in Ohio successfully replicated those results. Four-year colleges like Georgia State and UC Riverside have eliminated racial disparities with similar approaches, customized for their students. 

Investing in student success isn’t only good for equity. It’s also good economics. In those three Ohio colleges, the cost per graduate decreased 22% once they implemented the ASAP support strategies. Meeting this nation’s higher education goals requires focusing explicitly on boosting opportunity and outcomes for underrepresented students of color and students from low-income backgrounds; and creating higher education pathways for the students who long have been excluded from and underserved by the U.S. education system. 

Congress should invest in scaling up these student success initiatives nationwide. The Community College Student Success Act, part of the College Affordability Act, would be a sizeable down payment. 

It’s clear that voters want policy solutions that will level the playing field in education and the economy. Presidential candidates and members of Congress need to start saying how they’ll finish the job President Johnson started when he “swung open a new door” to higher education to Americans who had been locked out. It’s time to open the door even wider and ensure a true pathway to prosperity for all who enter. And it’s on all of us to push our leaders to make it happen.