As we once again approach the edge of a fiscal cliff — is anyone else as tired of this phrase as I am? Can we call it something else, perhaps? Budgetary bluff? — that jeopardizes aid to some of the neediest students, it’s becoming clear that financial aid policy needs to start looking more deeply at the the needs of the students it aims to help.
As recent studies by the MDRC, a social policy think-tank, and white papers underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have indicated, financial aid policy needs to address more than simple financial need. Policy needs to look more deeply into the reasons behind students’ need and the pressures that give rise to a desire for higher education.
In these days of inflated college attendance costs, fewer people can afford to be full-time students, or at least full-student students without employment. The recent recession saw many “nontrditional” students returning to school, as well: those with families to support, mortgages and sometimes, full time jobs. All of these issues go into the mix of a student’s life and have a can have a direct effect on academic success… or scholastic failure.
One of the reports underwritten by the Gates Foundation — American Dream 2.0 — recommends that the financial aid system look at the whole student. In doing so, it recommends that policy address three basic components to student success: accessibility, affordability and completion. The white paper suggests that without more attention paid to these basic concepts, students will fail to complete school at an increasingly alarming rate. At the same time, those who leave without finishing their degrees often do so with student loan debt.
This is a failure on multiple levels. The system has first and foremost failed the student. He or she did not have the support necessary to complete a degree; nor was there sufficient perceived incentive to do so, financial or otherwise. Financial aid policy that permits aid to continue flowing to schools who seem to have no vested interest in the academic or financial futures of their students fails the American taxpayer, as well.
To the extent that we continue to fund financial aid programs that take no responsibility for the students receiving the aid, we taxpayers may as well just be throwing our tax dollars into an incinerator at the college of our choice — although one could argue that with the federal deficit standing where it is, we are already doing something as foolhardy with our tax dollars.
What really needs to happen, though, is to take the billions of dollars that are annually earmarked for financial aid and use them in a way that points toward better outcomes for students and taxpayers, alike. The first premise to acknowledge is that financial aid is necessary. Period. Without it, regardless of the outrageous college costs we see today, higher education would not be feasible for many.
However, the cost of attending college is a major factor that must be addressed in financial aid policy. Right now, I could go get an English degree (and no, I’m not bashing English majors; I am one) from, say, Yale. In doing so, I could easily walk off campus, degree in hand, owing six figures in student loan debt. I decry neither the value of Yale nor an English degree; yet, isn’t the cost just plain silly? My English degree is 20 years old and comes from a public Big Ten university; and I still wonder what the hell I was thinking.
In the years immediately after college, I’m sure I would have been a poster child for outcome-based education financing, shuffling from one nowhere job to another until I decided to borrow even more money and go get an advanced degree. Where’s the frugality in that?
College simply has to be more affordable. The American Dream 2.0 report suggests a number of innovative ways to cut college costs, improve outcomes and send students into the world with a degree and less debt. Among the suggestions are offering college credits for competencies learned at or through work — rather than straight classroom time — and placing a greater burden for remedial education on high schools and community based education, rather than charging students for taking non-credit courses at college to learn what they already should have known in the first place.
Schools have to identify students who are most in need of support: educational, financial and social. Student aid needs to consider all aspects of a students life and impel the student toward completion of his or her degree. Linking aid to academic achievement or reaching certain milestones is one way suggested by the white paper. Without academic progress, aid eligibility is jeopardized. But there also needs to be a safety net from which students who are struggling can get help so as not to be flushed down the academic toilet into degreeless debt-land.
Colleges, themselves, should also be treated to a carrot-and-stick approach. Those who fail to meet certain standards, such as graduation rates or employment success among students, should have aid restricted to them. I want people to go to college. I want them to get degrees, and I want them to not be in debt. I don’t want colleges who don’t give a damn to get another dime of my tax money while they jack tuitions and send students packing without degrees.