Given the increasing necessity of a college degree for career success, many adults face the challenge of finding a degree path that they can afford. With job competition mounting and tuition costs on the rise, today’s post-secondary students must weigh an increasingly complex set of costs and benefits in the overarching struggle to find a college education they can afford, complete, and use to advance their careers. This article looks to past national efforts to make college education affordable and offers some additional considerations as to how far this affordability much reach for students to succeed.
The Historical Quest for Affordability
The first sweeping governmental reform to the college tuition problem was executed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1965, President Johnson enacted the Higher Education Act, legislation that was designed to make college more affordable and accessible to all Americans. As someone who had struggled to pay his way through college, President Johnson wanted to ensure that the path was more accessible for subsequent generations by establishing, among other elements, a federal student loan program and the Educational Opportunity Grant Program (that would later become the Pell Grant Program). President Johnson’s landmark legislation had a positive impact: in addition to additional financial aid and grant programs rolled out in the following years, data collected in the decades after of the Higher Education act revealed a significant uptick in low-income and minority college enrollees. Many of the Higher Education Act’s policies were recently renewed in 2008- resulting in an even greater increase in potential financial aid. A look at enrollment data, though, reveals that despite these new funding sources, the percentages of students for whom these funding programs were developed has startled to dwindle. For instance, a study performed by the American Council on Education revealed that between 2008 and 2013 the percentage of low-income high school graduates who had enrolled in college dropped from 55.9% to 45.5%. Even when adjusting these figures to account for the overall decrease in higher education enrollment owed to the 2008 economic recession, the drop in enrollment is most precipitous among low-income students, suggesting that some other factor beyond the purely financial aspects of tuition is at play.
Affordability Beyond Tuition Benefits
Experts and analysts who had attempted to understand this counter-intuitive trend suggest that students need more than affordable tuition to commit to completing their college degree. To be sure, lower cost credit hours are a benefit, but students can also struggle with the extra costs of college: textbooks, apartments, meals, utilities and so on. These additional costs result in a scenario, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which makes a college education too much of a financial burden. Moreover, students who enroll in college must also grapple with balancing the expenditure for their college experience and the potential jobs they can achieve once that college degree is completed. While college degrees are considered a necessary stepping stone for many professions, tensions in the job market has made the availability of employment following college graduation much more uncertain in many of these fields. This means that some students are forced to gamble by taking on the expense of college with the hope – not the promise – of a return on that investment – a steady salary – in the years following. For many, this gamble is just too risky to attempt. Of course, no college can guarantee employment following graduation, but statistically, studies have shown that those who earn a college degree can make substantially more than those who end their education after high school. Everyone should have access to such opportunity to boost lifetime earnings and to enjoy the personal enrichment that the college experience can provide. An increase in the overall affordability of college could help students feel more secure in their educational decisions. Better coverage of supplemental costs, increased help with career placement, or enhanced programming options to support an affordable college experience could encourage an entire generation of struggling college students to pursue their career goals without fear of drowning in debt.
– Sandy Baum, “How Should We Think About College Affordability?” Higher Education, a blog by the American Council on Education, 16 May 2017.
– Lauren Camera, “A Right, Not a Luxury.” US News and World Report, 6 November 2015.
– Emily Deruy, “Measuring College (Un)affordability.” The Atlantic, 23 March 2017.
– Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, “What does college affordability really look like?” The Washington Post, 4 April 2017.
– “Is college worth it?” The Economist, 5 April 2014.
– Scott Jaschik, “The Missing Low-Income Students.” Inside Higher Ed, 25 November 2015.
– Alain Poutré et al., “Limited Means, Limited Options: College Remains Unaffordable for Many Americans.” Institute for Higher Education Policy, March 2017.