New Policy Toolkit Looks Beyond Financial Aid to Support Shifting Student Demographics

Looking beyond traditional higher education policy, longtime advocates for college access and completion back new solutions

WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 2, 2019) — Higher Learning Advocates today released its latest policy toolkit—a fresh set of recommendations for how to make federal policy work better for an increasingly diverse population of students. As policymakers consider renewal of the Higher Education Act, the “Policy Toolkit for Today’s Students” outlines high-impact changes that would address barriers to college access and success—including an increasing number, such as food insecurity and child care costs, that fall outside of the scope of traditional federal higher education policy.

“The needs and experiences of today’s students are vastly different from what we saw even a decade ago,” said Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates and a former deputy staff director for the Committee on Education and Labor in the U.S. House of Representatives. “Our latest recommendations reflect the increasingly complicated lives of students and the need to employ every available policy tool to empower and support students.”

Higher Learning Advocates has advocated for changes to federal financial aid policy, and the latest recommendations both build on and extend beyond that work to address issues such as child care, economic security, hunger, and tax policy. The new package puts forward specific proposals that respond to the shifting demographics of today’s students, who are increasingly working full- or part-time, raising children or caring for family members, or attending college as first-generation students.

Specifically, the toolkit proposes changes in three key focus areas: broad student supports, services for parent learners and working adults, and enhanced affordability. Each of these are essential to provide the basic necessities for student learners and their children, increase access and reduce financial burden, and ultimately increase the number of students completing degrees.  

Broad Student Supports: Expanding student support to encompass issues outside of traditional higher education policy will help address the full range of factors that slow students’ progress or prevent them from earning a degree altogether. Specific policy recommendations include:

  • Open Educational Resources: According to recent data, 53 percent of students did not purchase or rent the required materials for a course on at least one occasion. The toolkit calls on Congress to boost appropriations for the Open Textbooks Pilot program at the Department of Education. Increasing open educational resources will help students gain access to the materials they need to succeed and will decrease the financial burden on students.
  • Food Insecurity: Some students receiving federal financial aid miss out on nutrition assistance benefits for which they are eligible. The toolkit recommends creating a seamless process that automatically provides the lowest-income students who complete the FAFSA with information on SNAP nutrition benefits for which they may qualify.

Serving Student Parents: Student parents now account for a quarter of all students, or almost 5 million students. Because of the competing demands of work and parenting, they are far less likely than their non-parent peers to ever earn degrees. Specific policy recommendations include:

  • Campus Child Care Partnerships: Child care expenses averaged roughly $9,000 in 2018, and parent learners particularly struggle to find quality, short-term care. The toolkit calls for funding through the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (SEOG) to be an allowable use to encourage partnerships between institutions and local child care centers.
  • Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG): The number of children served through the block grant program has declined significantly due to a 52 percent decrease in funds to child care providers between 2006 to 2015. The toolkit recommends increased investment in programs like CCDBG to ensure low-income parents are able to access and complete postsecondary education, increasing families’ odds of  socioeconomic mobility.

Enhanced Affordability: College costs—and the complexity of the federal aid system—remain a major barrier to access and completion for a large number of students. We must continue efforts to both make college more affordable and improve the financial aid process. Specific policy recommendations include:

  • FAFSA Income Verification: Students must not only navigate the complex FAFSA process, but almost a third each year are selected for additional income verification, a step that prevents many low-income students from ultimately receiving aid. In order to simplify the verification process, the U.S. Department of Education should exempt students who filled out their FAFSA by utilizing their tax information directly from the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Additionally, the Department of Education should lower the verification threshold from 30 percent to 15 percent of aid applicants in order to reduce the burden on students and focus on the highest-risk forms.
  • Micro grants: Institutions, including Georgia State University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, that provide micro-grants for urgent student needs have seen significantly higher retention rates among juniors and seniors, along with higher graduation rates for seniors. To boost degree attainment, the toolkit calls on policymakers to allow institutions to use certain forms of federal aid to provide micro-grants of $2,000 or less to students who are at least three quarters of the way through their program of study.

“Students increasingly are arriving on our campuses with multilayered needs that our current policies and structures are not well equipped to handle,” said Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, Commissioner of Higher Education of the Louisiana Board of Regents and Higher Learning Advocates board member. “We need creative, immediate solutions—like the ones outlined in this toolkit—to provide a wider scope of support and ultimately help more students graduate.”


About Higher Learning Advocates

Higher Learning Advocates, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. We support a system of higher learning that is student-centered, equitable, outcomes-based, and focused on educational quality by advocating for policies that are based on student outcomes, make postsecondary education and student aid work for today’s students, and ensure access and affordability. We are bipartisan, strategically minded, and focused on improving postsecondary access and success for all students.