College affordability is a problem that can be solved. Recent reports show many ideas to improve or solve college affordability. The most promising ideas promote strategic use of federal aid focused on financial need and partnerships with states to expand state, need-based financial aid programs and increase state investment in higher education. Sensible ideas about income-contingent loan repayment are included too.
Another idea, published earlier this week by The Atlantic writer Jordan Weissmann, is to make public higher education free using funds already available in the federal aid programs. What these reports/articles demonstrate is that money need not be a barrier to college participation. In fact, finding the funds to do what is right for this generation of students is the easy part of the problem.
What none of these analysts do (likely because they were not asked) is think about the political nature of the college affordability problem. The real challenge appears to be the lack of political leadership among those responsible for financing an affordable higher education. The Obama administration has done a great deal for poor students by increasing the Pell grant, but it has done little else to engage states in solving this problem or developing policy coherence among the disarray and conflicting purposes of federal financial aid. In fact, it has stood by as student dollars have served two purposes: to replace state dollars and play catch-up with tuition increases.
The rhetoric about the global economy and the need for better educated workers and citizens means little if leaders do not invest strategically in human capital. Sadly federal policymakers are not alone. States leaders, particularly governors and legislators, share responsibility for the leadership deficit. The last five years were tough on government programs, but the paucity of long-term planning in the face of a recognized threat to national prosperity is inexcusable. As state revenues plunged downward because of the recession, it was understandable that higher education would take a hit, as would other public services. But five years later, few states have fundamentally changed the allocation of public dollars among higher education institutions (performance-funding programs notwithstanding) to improve educational attainment. It was just too easy to pass off increases to students and their families. This tactic was confirmed this week by the annual SHEEO report on the state finance of higher education. Students and their families, for the first time, are paying for more than half of the costs of education.
Increases in private benefits (for example, higher incomes) help to justify this shift. But the growing public benefits of higher education have not been adequately understood; we’ve failed to grasp that our best bet for a prosperous and fair nation is that greater portions of our population earn meaningful postsecondary certificates and degrees.
Our political leaders seem to think otherwise. Washington is in near gridlock and more concerned about whom to blame than with finding solutions. Some states are undermining their own future with plans to eliminate large and reliable revenue sources rather than restructuring revenue sources in more sensible ways.
We do have good ideas. We just cannot enact them. Political courage seems to be in short supply. But recognizing the right problem is the first step in turning things around. Good ideas about how to solve the affordability problem simply don’t have an audience absent courageous leadership.
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