The crisis of college affordability and how student voices can help

June 17, 2019

Yuderka, a student at Lehman College in the Bronx, stood before a national conference for education advocates I attended last month and recounted the financial hardships she’s faced in her college journey. The mother of two has been chipping away at a bachelor’s degree for years, working more than 35 hours a week, forgoing basics and – even though she receives state and federal grants – racking up $50,000 in student loans to keep her family afloat.

Later at lunch, she told me how grateful she was for the aid she receives but, she said, “wow, has it been hard.”

Sixteen other students shared similar stories of adversity at the “Advancing Equity Through Affordability” conference hosted by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) in Washington, D.C. The conference showcased the perspectives and challenges of these low-income and working-class students who are profiled in IHEP’s new report, The Cost of Opportunity: Student Stories of College Affordability.

The reality is that while grants and scholarships help, it’s just not enough anymore. While college tuition has skyrocketed over the last two decades, federal and state aid hasn’t kept up.

Nationally, the purchasing power of Pell, the core federal aid grant, has declined from its peak in the mid-1970’s of about three-fourths of the total cost of attendance – tuition, fees, and living expenses – at the average four-year public university to less than 30 percent of those costs today. Today, the maximum grant (which does not need to be paid back) is $6,095 per year. To compare, the University of Louisville’s 2019-2020 in-state tuition and fees is set at $11,928; and Jefferson Community and Technical College (Jefferson) tuition and fees amount to $5,370 for a full-time course load. For low-income and working-class students, the only option is to cut back on classes and student activities, take out loans, borrow from friends and family, and even skip meals to make ends meet.

Exacerbating the trend here in Kentucky is a steady increase in tuition coupled with declining state investment in higher education. Over the last decade, tuition has gone up 50 percent at Kentucky’s four-year public universities and 33 percent at two-year colleges. In the same time, per-student spending is down 33 percent, and Kentucky is one of only a handful of states that has not started reinvesting in public higher education since recovery from the 2008 recession.

55,000 Degrees (55K) has spent more than nine years working with partners to increase education attainment in Louisville. But people can’t earn degrees if they can’t pay for them. As one speaker at the IHEP conference said: “We can’t improve college completion rates or attainment rates… unless we address the affordability crisis.”

Students and families can’t simply continue to take out loans to pay for higher education. State and federal policy makers must shoulder the burden of solving this crisis in college affordability.

Following the IHEP conference last month, I joined three other advocates from Lumina Foundation’s Community Partner network for a policy visit with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. I sat down with Congressman John Yarmuth and the education staffers for Sen. McConnell and Reps. Guthrie and Comer. With the Higher Education Act currently on the table for the first time in more than a decade, our Kentucky Congressional Delegation is interested in the issues our students face. They know that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require education beyond high school and that employers continually report shortages of skilled workers. As of 2017, only 43 percent of adults in Louisville completed an associate degree or further levels of higher education. Helping more students pay for college is critical to Kentucky’s economy, and our legislators know that.

During our Hill visit, Lumina’s community partner team asked our federal lawmakers to:

Expand access to, and improve delivery of, financial aid for today’s students. This includes strengthening need-based aid and simplifying the notoriously long and difficult Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In 2018, hundreds of thousands of low-income high school graduates left $2.6 billion of financial aid on the table because they didn’t even fill out the FAFSA, many saying they didn’t know they were eligible or they didn’t know how to complete the paperwork.

Enable and incentivize institutions of higher education to innovate to make college completion a reality for all students through flexibility in policies and funding for services. Too often, students struggle to pay for housing, food, child care and other basic needs. Resources and supports must be available for wrap-around services to help students complete their degree. A $75 CPR fee almost caused one student to leave Jefferson Community and Technical College. Another couldn’t afford the scrubs needed for her clinical program. Every dollar counts and giving institutions flexibility to target funds and work-study where it is needed most can make the difference between dropping out and graduating.

How can we help? As advocates of equity and affordability in higher education, we must help students speak out and let policymakers know what they’re experiencing. Let them know the reality of college today, which is very different from even 15 years ago. Costs are higher and students are raising kids, holding down jobs, and dealing with other life responsibilities. Working your way through college is simply no longer feasible for many students.

At the community level, we can be proactive. While policymakers deliberate, let’s work to find our own solutions to the affordability crisis. Then, when and if federal and state policymakers finish their work, we’ll be that much further along in this important work.

Mary Gwen Wheeler is Executive Director of 55,000 Degrees, a public-private partnership dedicated to increasing education attainment in the Louisville area.

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