Higher Learning Advocates’ Policy Wish List
By: Emily Bouck West
As we near the holiday season and the start of 2021 — a new year, with a new administration and Congress — Higher Learning Advocates is reflecting on our wish list. We’ve identified five key federal policy fixes that, if implemented, could change today’s students’ lives, making higher learning more accessible and affordable to all. Let’s make these policy changes, and the students they would help, top priority come January.
1. Connect college students
The sudden and continued shift to online learning has highlighted connectivity challenges for today’s students in college. At a time when ninety-six percent of students reported that they use the internet to access and complete assignments, many lack affordable and reliable internet service and connected devices. Low-income households are more likely to rely on mobile broadband, which can have insufficient speeds to complete coursework, and a recent survey shows Black and Latino respondents were more likely to rely on mobile data and that they had trouble accessing course content.
Congress should pass the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act (H.R. 6814, S. 3701) introduced by Congresswoman Eshoo and Senator Klobuchar and the Emergency Broadband Connections Act (S.4095) introduced by Senator Wyden to improve connectivity for today’s students and ensure they can remain enrolled in college and work toward completing their degree or credential.
2. Fund additional emergency aid
When campuses closed in the spring, students lost more than access to lecture halls. Shuttered dorms, dining halls, child care facilities, libraries, health centers, and other facilities meant students were faced with making emergency financial decisions. As a result, the CARES Act allocated $14 billion to the Department of Education (ED), half of which was required to be used for direct emergency aid to students to help with expenses like transportation, storage, medical bills, child care, rent, groceries, and more.
Most colleges allocated those funds to their students in the spring semester, yet unfortunately students are still facing unexpected expenses at a time when the pandemic is peaking in multiple regions throughout the country and concerns around job or wage loss and public health remain high. Addressing students’ financial needs at critical times not only solves financial problems, but helps to ensure academic success. More emergency aid is clearly needed. In addition, ED issued limiting guidance around emergency aid funds in the CARES Act and stipulated that only students who are eligible for federal student aid programs could receive emergency aid — a provision that goes against the intent of the law and excludes student groups like DACA recipients and international students.
Congress should pass further COVID relief measures that include more emergency aid for today’s students and do not exclude groups of students who may be in need. Support for emergency aid has never been higher across student-centered advocacy groups and bipartisan policymakers, and it’s imperative that students can receive the financial assistance they need to continue working toward completing their degree or credential.
3. Support Student Parents
It may come as a surprise to learn that almost one-quarter of college students are parents. But student parents have perhaps been hit with some of the biggest surprises of all in 2020 — they’ve had to become online college students, teachers for their children, full-time caretakers, remote workers, and more. The challenges placed on student parents during this pandemic are unimaginable, and one can understand how a student parent may choose to put their postsecondary education on pause to support the myriad other people and demands relying on them.
But that shouldn’t be the case, especially since we know those with a bachelor’s degree earn one million dollars more over their lifetimes than those with a high school diploma and bachelor’s degree-holders are less likely to face job or wage loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must do all we can to support student parents on their path to degree completion because we know the effects are multi-generational and incredibly meaningful.
Today’s student parents need expanded basic needs access to programs like SNAP, TANF, and WIC. They need continued pandemic unemployment assistance and another round of stimulus payments. They need financial support to afford child care, for which costs are at an all-time high as a result of the pandemic. They need increased access for programs like CCAMPIS, and they need a reform to the Child & Dependent Care Tax Credit to allow part-time students to claim the credit.
4. Improve access for adult students
Forty percent of American households have faced job or wage loss since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lines for food assistance throughout the country have never been longer. Americans facing housing insecurity have fewer places to turn. Mental health challenges and substance abuse are ravaging our country. And for many, there is no hope and opportunity is nowhere in sight.
Our nation’s system of higher education has historically been the pinnacle of hope and mobility for individuals looking to gain new skills and expand their job prospects. But for unemployed or underemployed Americans, the prospect of two or four years and thousands of dollars dedicated toward earning a bachelor’s or associate’s degree seems untenable. The good news is that most workers have prior experience or even college credit — 36 million Americans have some college credit but no degree. Our system of higher learning and federal student aid must evolve or these Americans will continue to be shut out of postsecondary education and therefore further job opportunities.
There are two arcane federal financial aid rules that could use a “reset” — Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) and Pell Lifetime Eligibility Usage (LEU). SAP is a threshold which students must pass to access federal student aid — think GPAs and percent credits earned vs. attempted. If a student fails SAP, they lose access to federal student aid like Pell Grants and student loans. That means if they want to re-enroll in college, no matter how many years later, they may have to pay out of pocket for a semester until they pass their school’s SAP threshold again and can receive aid. Resetting SAP for students who haven’t enrolled in higher education in the prior two years would mean more students would be able to return to college to complete their degrees or start down a new path.
Similarly, Pell LEU should be reset for students who have reached the maximum amount of the Pell Grants, already hold a degree or credential, and have been employed in the workforce for the majority of the past ten years. This would mean those who received the Pell Grant in the past but still qualify for a Pell Grant under the income requirements would be able to use the grant to pay toward postsecondary education.
Finally, policymakers must create a way for Americans to be able to use federal student aid for high-quality short-term education programs that are directly linked to workforce needs. Research shows that approximately 94 percent of certificates awarded are in career-oriented fields and further research indicates that certain short-term certificate programs can lead to significant wage gains. As 40 percent of households have been impacted by job and wage loss, it is critical to our country’s economic recovery to enable learners to use federal student aid for these in-demand, high-quality shorter postsecondary programs.
5. Fix the FAFSA + financial aid judgments
It’s high time to fix the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — the form Americans use to access federal student aid. There is overwhelming bipartisan support for simplifying the form by reducing the number of questions asked of students and their parents and improving the form. FAFSA completion is down 16 percent compared to last year, and college enrollment for new students is down 16 percent for four-year colleges and 22 percent for two-year programs.
Reducing the complexity of completing the FAFSA and improving the underlying formula would be a meaningful step toward ensuring today’s students continue to enroll and remain in postsecondary education to access meaningful skills that connect to careers and increase their lifetime earnings.
Further, financial aid professionals have an important tool at their disposal to assist students whose financial situation may not be accurately reflected in their financial aid allocation called “professional judgement.” After the economic downturn in 2008, ED issued regulatory guidance that allowed aid administrators to use as proof of a student’s unemployment benefits to use professional judgement and change data items related to a student’s income to $0. ED also agreed to adjust its risk model to account for the increased use of professional judgement during this time. Unfortunately and nonsensically, ED in June officially rescinded the earlier guidance around professional judgement, leaving aid administrators without this important tool to help today’s students who have been financially impacted by the pandemic. Policymakers must issue similar guidance to ensure professional judgement can be used to benefit students in need.