“Solving” Education Problems One Policy at a Time
As I have written before, the cost of four-year College has increased over the last twenty years faster than inflation or family income. Funding dictates the number of low-income students who get the money they need in order to go to college. Some good news recently may lead to better higher education policy in the future if we take heed.
Yesterday, Bob Geiger reported that Senator Dodd of Connecticut has introduced a bill (S.899) that would raise Pell grants (the federal college grant program) from its current maximum of $4,310 to $7,600:
"The benefits of Pell grant aid cannot be overstated. Pell grants are beneficial to individual students as well as our society as a whole," said Dodd. "By increasing the Pell grant, we make a college education more affordable, and thus, make it more likely that qualified and hard working low- and moderate-income students will attend. It would be a significant loss to this great Nation if a generation of individuals were not able to earn a college degree simply because they could not afford to pay for it."
Geiger notes, "Prepared to answer Republican criticism that the increase is too large initially and over the next five years, Dodd cites the fact that the buying power of the current grant is significantly smaller than it was 30 years ago. In 1975, the maximum Pell grant covered 80 percent of the average student's tuition, fees, room, and board at 4-year public universities, while in 2006 the typical grant covered just 33 percent of the total charges at the same schools."
In addition to Dodd's bill aimed at increasing the Pell, the Washington Post ran a story on simplifying FAFSA. FAFSA is the financial aid application that students must fill out in order to qualify for college grants and loans. The process and the application can be confusing for high school students and their parents. When my organization WRI does high school presentation we bring FAFSAs and go over the applications with students because so many teenagers and their teachers, too, find it daunting. In the Washington Post's article, Secretary of Education Spelling is quoted as saying "We simply have to get more kids to college." She has called a meeting for today to look at the FAFSA process.
It is important that she sees simplifying the application as part of getting kids in college. Especially as the Washington Post reports, "The confusion surrounding the FAFSA is more than just an inconvenience. One study has estimated 1.5 million low-income students who would have been eligible for Pell Grants in 2004, [but who] didn't complete the form."
It is encouraging that the administration is looking at simplifying the process of getting into and paying for college for low-income students. These policy shifts will benefit everyone actually. It's also encouraging that there is a Senate bill for a much needed Pell increase.
What is harrowing is that neither initiative is guaranteed to succeed, in part, because we don't have a clear cross-jurisdictional (city, state and federal) higher education policy. We must take heed. If access to education was government's number one priority, or at least one of the top three, we would be out in front of issues with comprehensive policy not piecemealing solutions problem by problem.