Numerous short-term solutions available to make college affordable
It’s unbelievable how many options there are for lawmakers to make college more affordable, some short-term and some long-term. But it’s even more unbelievable that so many states are not using them.
The structural reforms in Goldrick-Rab, Schudde & Stampen are more long-term and could face significant opposition — not to mention they’d require action through a gridlocked federal government.
Other structural reforms at the federal level, such as coming up with an effective definition of affordability and unmet need, are tricky, as Baum & Ma’s reading showed.
States, however, have much more flexibility and could for now implement a few reforms that would help with college access and success. As Prescott and Longanecker point out, “state financial aid programs have been largely unexamined in discussions on college affordability,” despite states being the “laboratories of democracy” that can provide examples for how certain approaches work. In fact, only a handful of states even have their own financial aid program, although the research clearly shows financial aid is effective for low-income students’ success in college.
Prescott and Longanecker’s proposed reforms are more structural and long-term, developing a strong partnership between students, institutions and the government. But the MDRC report laid out several smaller options states could take right now to test out whether different approaches to financial aid work. Testing performance-based aid against merit aid, for example, would “increase equity among lower- and higher-income students” and at the same time ensure that aid goes towards students who stick around. Beginning to test out and develop more effective targeting techniques could be another way. Even the modest step in providing financial aid during winter and summer would help, as well as give researchers more data on how financial aid impacts students.
The PBS Demonstration study, for example, provided promising results, improving affordability with its performance-based awards. But how many states have actually adopted or begun considering similar models? How often do successful “laboratories of democracy” solutions actually spread to other states?
As someone who covers politics, I know there is a lengthy process for short-term and long-term reforms to take place. But I also know those reforms can come quickly if lawmakers are truly focused on them. It’s time for them to pay attention to college affordability and implement several of these recommendations.