Aid to Schools, not Just Students

The debate around higher education affordability in the United States today often focuses on Pell grants, need-based financial aid, and reducing individual student loan debt. In fact, most discussions about making higher education more affordable focus aid that goes to students rather than money going directly to schools. Most of this week’s readings examined college affordability from an alternate perspective, arguing that federal and state investment in higher education would be best served by directing more money to public colleges and universities in order to help these schools keep their costs down rather than relying primarily on financial aid to help students deal with ever-increasing costs.

Baum and Ma argue that the typical formula used for calculating a student’s unmeet need is inadequate and driven by a flawed formula for expected family contributions that assume low-to-moderate income families can shoulder a disproportionately high level of their kid’s college cost. These unmet need calculations cannot measure students who are priced out to the point where they are unable to enroll and even proposals like Pay it Forward, Baum and Ma say, are simply re-casting debt with another name.

Suggestions from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education share the sentiment made by Weber State University professor Charles Wright in last week’s readings. That is, states need to put more economic pressure on universities to graduate students either by offering financial incentives and shared risks and rewards (as the WICHE suggests) or by holding states more accountable by giving more aid directly to states and universities. At the same time, Professor Goldrick-Rab’s proposal expresses concern that market-based approaches to awarding student aid are prone to perpetuate seemingly endless increases in college costs. Instead, her proposal would grant Title IV funds according to the needs of a university’s students, thus giving institutions that enroll more disadvantaged students higher rates financial assistance. I think this approach could be an effective way to balance a university’s incentive to chase after students from high-income (from whom they certainly will expect a long-term financial return through donations and other means) with the immediate returns of pairing increased state aid with the enrollment of students from less privileged families.

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