Last week’s release of Academically Adrift has caused a stir in the higher education community because of its claim that “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.” But one of the book’s overlooked findings is that students who receive grants as their primary form of financial aid learn more than students who receive mostly loans. The authors say this may be explained by the fact that students—and especially those who are lower-income—are averse to debt. So those who are compelled to work to make ends meet take longer to graduate. But as a student who received significant grant aid to fund most of her undergraduate education, I believe the benefits of grant aid are even greater than what the authors suggest.
Grants and a manageable debt burden made it possible for me to go to college, which was never a certainty given my personal finances. Without the pressure to work, I was able to pick classes that truly interested me—those that pushed me to think, to read, and to write. Grateful for the opportunity to receive a valuable education, I didn’t want to waste my time in easy classes—I chose to challenge myself in purposeful ones instead. Even if my GPA wasn’t perfect, I still took classes from Organic Chemistry to Linguistic Field Methods to Literary Responses to the Holocaust, and genuinely enjoyed (and learned from) every minute of them. Ultimately, this broad range of interests led me pursue a career in education policy. It’s a path I never planned, and one that disrupted my tiger parents’ dreams that I would become a doctor.
But at the same time that books like Academically Adrift are raising concerns about learning quality, there has also been a push to dramatically reduce government spending. Unfortunately, budget hawks in Congress might cite the conclusions of Academically Adrift as one reason for targeting the Pell Grant program as a potential source of cost savings, perhaps arguing that it would be a waste of money if students aren’t learning anything anyway.
Less money for the lowest-income students, however, will only lead to worse effects on learning, while also hurting graduation rates. Grants help students afford to take more classes—even those offered during January-term, the summer, or abroad—since they don’t have to spend as much time working. Grant funds may also give students greater freedom to pursue a major in which they are passionate about because they don’t have to be as focused on choosing what appears to be the major that pays the most. This freedom allows students to feel more invested and engaged in their education, which will encourage them to work harder.
Some schools have recognized the importance of academic freedom that grants provide. The AccessUVa financial aid program at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, for example, provides loan-free packages and caps on loans to allow “students the freedom to pursue graduate study or public-service careers … without the kind of burdensome debt that might otherwise limit their options.”
The level of grant aid also means students can select the best schools for them and not resort to a cheaper option that might not be a suitable match. Currently, price can have a major effect on the college choice of low-income students. In Crossing the Finish Line, a major study of college graduation rates, the authors talk about how highly qualified low-income students tend to enroll in less expensive and less selective schools due to an elite school’s high sticker price. But this has negative consequences, as students who choose the cheaper and less prestigious option are 22 percentage points less likely to graduate in six years than their peers who enrolled in the school that best matched their academic qualifications.
Thanks to grant aid, if students could afford a more selective institution that has the means to support its low-income students better, and not have to worry as much about price, they might ultimately feel more engaged in their studies and community—which can go a long way when considering retention and graduation rates. Students learn best when they are challenged appropriately and connect with their students and faculty. Continued support for grant aid is critical for giving students those opportunities—it makes them secure enough that fears of debt won’t prevent them from attending the best schools they can and gives them the freedom to devote their time to a meaningful academic experience.