Student debt forgiveness—if ultimately allowed by the Supreme Court to go into effect—will not be enough to address the crisis of college affordability. For too many learners, higher education is just too costly—and risky—of an investment. Any amount of debt cancellation will mean very little without structural reforms that ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past and saddle more students with debt in the future. And that includes reimagining the bedrock law of our federal financial aid system: Title IV.
The current system is meant to support learners with the most financial hardship, but the restrictions on where Title IV dollars can be used often steer learners from low-income backgrounds toward the most expensive postsecondary options. Title IV is effectively a voucher, but one that can only be spent at traditional colleges, despite an increasing variety of more affordable alternatives. It’s not unlike requiring food stamp recipients to only buy food at high-end organic markets.
Over the past three decades, average tuition and fees has risen dramatically; in the 2021–22 academic year, average published tuition and fees at public four-year institutions was more than 2.5 times higher than 30 years ago, even after adjusting for inflation. In addition, there is a large gap in borrowing that perpetuates inequity. Students from low-income families borrow, on average, $43,983 to pay for their education, compared to the $25,375 that students from higher-income families borrow. This puts low-income students at a disadvantage as they embark on their careers and try to support themselves and their families.
What’s more, there is no guarantee that students will be successful in taking a traditional college path, despite the increasingly large investments they and their families are making. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 36 percent of first-time, full-time students enrolled in four-year baccalaureate programs do not graduate within six years, leaving them with debt they may struggle to repay. According to a 2021 study by the online learning provider StraighterLine (which I founded and now chair) and UPCEA, a professional membership association for professional, continuing and online education, about two out of five students who drop out of college come from households earning less than $35,000 per year. This makes college a very risky investment, especially for students from low-income families who are the intended beneficiaries of federal aid but often end up taking on considerable debt. Read the full article here.