A Q&A with Julie Peller, Executive Director for Higher Learning Advocates

Insights & Outlooks: Last month marked the 11th anniversary of the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). For HEA to better support today’s students, what are you hoping to see updated in the next reauthorization of HEA?

Today’s students are now more diverse in age, race, and income level than any previous generation. Thirty-seven percent of students are older than 25-years-old. They’re juggling work and family responsibilities outside of the classroom—more than half of students work while in college and 40% work part-time. Thirty-one percent of students are at or below the poverty line. Today’s students are more mobile and may not live on campus.

And, the issues are different. Today, students are experiencing food insecurity at alarming rates. Student borrowers are defaulting on loans—nearly half of Black students and 36% of Hispanic students are defaulting on a loan within 12 years. And students are attending higher education in new ways, such as competency-based education

Unfortunately, the HEA is not equipped to address the issues that today’s students are facing. In 2008, we updated the law largely with the traditional student in mind.  We focused on transparency, affordability, and early information so that students—and their parents—could make good and early decisions. Today, we know many students are parents themselves and need reform beyond transparency.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) needs to be updated to better support all of today’s students.  In order to do so, all of us need to shift our mindset of who today’s students are, what their experiences are, and what can be done to help them succeed.  There’s no silver bullet policy “fix” here. Higher Learning Advocates recommends a series of reforms with this frame in mind, believing that together individual reforms will make a significant difference.

Insights & Outlooks: What do you think HEA can do to improve the rates of completion for first-generation students, students of color, and students from low-income families?

The Higher Education Act was founded with the goal of equalizing access to higher education for low-income students.  While that continues to be the foundational goal, more can be done to not just provide equal access, but to work toward closing gaps in both access and success for students of color and low-income students.  Some specific reforms include:

Create a more seamless connection between SNAP and FAFSA. Improving this process may increase the number of SNAP eligible students who receive benefits. Too many students are hungry on campuses today. By putting notifications in place that will inform students if their Expected Family Contribution (EFC) on the FAFSA is zero, students would be made aware of their possible eligibility for SNAP benefits. 

Reset the Pell Lifetime Eligibility Usage (LEU) limit. Students who have reached their lifetime eligibility amount, hold a degree or credential, and have been employed in the workforce for the majority of ten years. In today’s lifelong learning environment, getting ahead often means returning to school.  By extending Pell eligibility to these students,

Simplify the process of applying for aid. I think each reauthorization since its creation has attempted to simplify the FAFSA, but without doing so the process is too burdensome for many potential students, particularly first-generation students.  The FAFSA can be simplified in a number of ways, but – at a minimum – this simplification should include easy to comprehend financial aid information and award letters and a less burdensome verification process.

Insights & Outlooks: What can HEA do to better support adult learners and student parents?

A large population of today’s students are older and are parents themselves. Thirty-seven percent of students are older than 25. Twenty-four percent of students are parents. In addition to costs associated with tuition, fees, and supplies, student parents are also managing high costs of child care. Child care expenses average approximately $9,000 annually.

Address child care needs. Thankfully, today’s HEA conversation acknowledges that student success means more than what they receive in the classroom.  Access to affordable, high-quality, and accessible child care can be a barrier to completion for student parents. Federal programs can help institutions offer emergency child care by allowing institutions of higher learning to set aside funds under the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (SEOG) program to expand access to child care providers. Further, funding for the Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program (CCAMPIS) should be increased to $150 million annually.

Give a second chance to returning students. There are more than 31 million adults with some college, but no degree. Re-entering higher education can be difficult for some students because we have set systems in place that make returning difficult.  Returning students, like all of today’s students, need to meet satisfactory academic progress to be eligible for federal student aid, which includes prior academic standing. We believe that this should be reset for students who have stopped out for a significant period of time so that they return with a clean academic slate.

Insights & Outlooks: As Congress considers HEA, why do a full reauthorization, rather than a piecemeal approach? 

In many cases, political reality means that some change is better than none.  However, I’m not so sure in this case. As noted before, today’s students need a full rethink of the Higher Education Act in order to drive the systems change necessary for their success.  This means that the critical issues—quality assurance, affordability, and innovation to name a few—are inextricably intertwined. If Congress tackles one issue, or one title, it will certainly have implications on the other issues and titles. Today’s students don’t experience higher education in a silo, and we should not treat policy as if they do.