The Higher Education Act Reauthorization Needs to Focus on #RealCollege Students

When Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act, it must invest in a higher education system that leverages talent in order to propel innovation, create healthier communities, and fuel a more just economy that works for all.  Doing so requires a clear focus on supporting today’s #RealCollege students.

#RealCollege students know that it is easier to get a steady and decent-paying job with a college credential, but many can’t afford to enroll or stay enrolled.  Almost all are working or seeking work (40% are working more than 30 hours per week) and know how hard it is to find courses that allow them to keep their job while also completing a degree. Others are paying for college even though it compromises their ability to pay rent or put food on the table.  Many lack the family support assumed by the “Expected” Family Contribution and are instead paying bills for children, siblings, parents, and even grandparents.  Financial struggles, rather than talent and effort, impact every decision #RealCollege students make. This is hardly the American Dream.

The upcoming reauthorization is a chance to correct past mistakes, and revise policies built on false assumptions.  For example, the current system assumes that financial need is found only among students in the bottom quartile of the income distribution.  But the entire bottom 50% of families is facing real hardship paying for college, having experienced just 5 to 7 percent growth in income over the last thirty years.  The “net prices” facing today’s middle class are similar to the net prices facing Pell recipients in 1990s.  (And let’s be honest, those net prices grossly understate the real price of college.) Even upper-middle class families are struggling because no matter how much they save, today’s prices mean having to disappoint their children, deny their dreams – or take on more debt than they have ever imagined.  We need to revise the financing system to focus on offering public higher education tuition-free, just as we did for public high schools nearly a century ago. A high-quality public option will create healthy competition to drive down prices in the private sector and put the worst actors out of business.

Congressional leaders also need to reduce administrative burden on students and colleges. The system should not hassle students or their colleges more than it supports them. We can effectively target support using institutional type without requiring students to jump through hoops in order to prove their poverty.  The FAFSA is a bureaucratic tragedy that unnecessarily costs an estimated $787 million each year, and ought to be eliminated, not simplified.

Taxpayers should get their money’s worth.  Since the lion’s share of the financial payoff to higher education goes to the federal government, it should make a much bigger investment accompanied by real accountability.  Colleges receiving federal funds should promote social mobility by ensuring that students get into and through their doors – spending public dollars on engines of inequality is untenable in the 21st century.  As students well known, a college is not “affordable” if it is not accessible.   Colleges and universities also need support in the form of technical assistance and strategic grant aid to rethink how they provide affordable books and supplies, housing, food, transportation, and childcare.  After a period of implementation, they should be held accountable for ensuring that students’ living expenses are kept to a minimum. Congress should complement their effort by providing supports in the form of reformed SNAP eligibility, revisions to the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, and an expansion of the National School Lunch Program.

While government spending on higher education is at an all-time high, taxpayers must remember that the direct savings are substantial—in fact, the country makes back more than we spend.  Demand for affordable higher education continues to grow because people understand this. We are at a critical juncture: we can either proceed down the current path, closing the gates and inhibiting economic growth, or we can revise the Higher Education Act to promote progress. The choice is ours.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is Professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University and the Founding Director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.