Tipping Point

If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. This age-old adage, when applied to something rather intricate, say funding higher education, becomes much less black-and-white than it seems. Without an understanding of what constitutes as broke, there’s no impetus to fix!

As noted in Making College Affordable, roughly three-fourths of Americans and 90% of college presidents believe that college is too expensive. This popular conclusion, though, has not led to decreased demand for education, but rather over the past decades, more people than ever before are pursuing postsecondary education. If a business experienced similar growth, it would be an irrefutable success, so why would colleges be concerned about becoming more affordable? Indeed, defining what defines broke is paramount for change in higher ed.

Inequalities salient across socioeconomic and racial lines have come to define failure in higher education. Among the myriad factors that have fostered the inequalities, the perverse methods of financing education are hard to ignore and often scrutinized. Federal assistance has become twistedly complicated for students and families to navigate and evidence indicates it’s successful in bridging inequalities (unmet need alone is testimony).

In the wake of a dilapidated system there have been countless recommendations made to enhance the system. Various organizations dedicated to advocating policy changes have cluttered a political arena where politicians are most likely clueless in which direction to follow. WICHE alone drafted a dozen ideas that would at best plug a dozen leaks in a hemorrhaging system.

Overhauling financial aid would seem to be the best and only chance at fixing the problem. The proposed plan by Goldrick-Rab et al. to focus on funding institutions instead of students could be revolutionary, leading to free, or at the least clearly discounted, higher public education. Arguably, this approach would drive down private college costs as well, as they’d seek to remain competitive. Operating under current student-funded logic, the drastic rise of cost in higher ed makes sense. Subsidizing the consumer will lead to the “market” raising their prices because they know the consumer is receiving subsidies. Subsidizing the market doesn’t incentivize them to raise their prices as that will make them unavailable to the unsubsidized consumer.

The state of college affordability is characteristically bleak. While we recognize the terrible faults in the system, we continue to let it function, and in some cases, thrive. Unless we stand firm that inequalities are indicative of a truly broken system, symptoms will continue to be treated but a cure will never be prescribed. But, what we need is more than a band-aid: it’s a hip replacement. Overhauling how federal aid is provided and tieing it to institutions instead of individuals is the option that politicians steered away from in the past, but is what holds the most promise for a more equal and affordable system of higher education.