Student Policy Perspectives

Student Policy Perspectives

From free college and student loan forgiveness to admissions and free speech, here’s what students think about various higher ed policies at the federal, state and institutional levels.

What college students think about higher education policy

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60% of students strongly support free four-year college

Survey reveals what education policy makers working on behalf of students need to know about solutions that students support for making college more affordable and equitable.

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Investing in strategies to boost degree completion, not free college (opinion)

“Free college” proposals are at the forefront of state and federal policy making, garnering frequent online and newspaper headlines. Central to these conversations is an almost universal agreement that some postsecondary education is necessary for our nation’s citizens to have a good chance of gaining a family-sustaining job and entering the middle class.

A recent Student Voice survey of 2,035 students reveals significant support for free college proposals during a time when COVID-19 has impacted nearly every aspect of American life. The broad support among students for these proposals is both exciting and promising. Yet it’s not clear that this approach is the best higher education investment we can make as part of the Biden administration plan to Build Back Better.

The survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan, found that students are most supportive of free college proposals that cover fees and tuition at community colleges, as opposed to free four-year college. More than 70 percent of students strongly support the free community college movement, and another 19 percent are “somewhat supportive,” which demonstrates a degree of unanimity rarely seen among the populace regarding education policy issues.

Women are more supportive than men (78 percent as compared to 62 percent), perhaps reflecting the rising tide of female participation in college the past two decades, or, perhaps, it’s the understanding that their economic livelihood is especially linked to increasing dependence on skills gained from a postsecondary degree.

There is also similar support for free community college proposals among students from various racial and ethnic groups. African Americans are the strongest supporters of these proposals (84 percent), followed by Latinx students (80 percent), Asian American students (73 percent) and white students (65 percent). This trend might represent the fact that African American and Hispanic/Latino students are more likely to attend community colleges rather than four-year institutions.

Despite the almost universal support for some kind of free college proposals, such initiatives -- whether at the state or federal level -- solve a problem that does not exist.

Despite the almost universal support for some kind of free college proposals, such initiatives -- whether at the state or federal level -- solve a problem that does not exist. In fact, if fully implemented, free college proposals would only exacerbate higher education’s overriding problem: the degree completion gap.

Access to U.S. colleges and universities is not the most compelling challenge in higher education. America has one of the highest postsecondary participation rates in the world. However, only about six in 10 of students attending a four-year institution leave with a degree in hand. And at community colleges, which serve the greatest number of students from underrepresented groups, completion rates are even lower. Despite some gains in associate degree attainment, a recent report from the Center for American Progress documents large and persistent attainment gaps by race and ethnicity. For example, although Hispanic/Latino students have made the most impressive gains in degree attainment, they remain the least likely to complete a degree (30.6 percent). This is 27 points behind white students.

While we applaud the good intentions associated with free college proposals, they are unlikely to boost degree attainment. That’s because our most underserved students need something more than an open door to college; they need additional supports that will propel them toward a certificate or a degree. For example, about one-third of all community college students have children. The ability of those students to complete college is directly dependent on access to quality childcare, a service inadequately provided on most college campuses. Textbooks have become increasingly expensive, but few free college proposals address the significant needs of students beyond tuition costs (which, for our neediest students, are covered by Pell Grants).

Free college proposals also pose an additional problem. Like many issues in the U.S. right now, support for state and federal government proposals designed to boost college-going differs significantly along political lines.

For example, the Student Voice survey indicates that although 85 percent of students who lean Democratic support these proposals, only 30 percent of Republican-leaning students are similarly predisposed to free college initiatives. We are unlikely to build support across the political aisle for any of these proposals if we don’t implement strategies that help institutions become more effective at helping students attain their credential rather than accumulate the worst combination possible: some college, no income-enhancing degree and significant college loan debt.

What organization in America could -- or should -- survive when it manages to award degrees to only six in 10 Americans? How many equity firms would fund a transfer start-up model that, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, propels fewer than 30 percent of community college students to a four-year institution, despite the fact that 80 percent of all new community college students intend to earn a four-year degree?

Action for Greater Degree Completion

Fortunately, there are solutions that will raise degree completion rates for all Americans -- and lower the cost per degree. As the Biden administration works to foster a more college-educated population, we should (as our book title suggests) go Beyond Free College.

This is the moment for our country to build upon the broad backing for free college while also providing the additional supports that advance students toward the completion of degrees and certificates.

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Investing in strategies that boost degree completion and lower the cost per degree is likely to gain bipartisan support because the U.S. enjoyed success in this arena during the last century. The GI Bill provided returning World War II veterans with the support they needed to be reskilled for a peacetime economy. Just like the free college proposal put forth by President Biden, the GI Bill covered the cost of tuition. But there were important additions. The GI Bill also provided students with critical funding support that covered the expenses of housing, food, books and childcare. We need similar support today to assure the students who enroll actually get what they came for and graduate with a college degree.

The successful return on investment for the GI Bill to our country has been well documented, as have similar replicable models such as the ASAP program found across the CUNY system in New York City. Although covering these up-front costs requires significant investments, the cost per degree is reduced because the degree completion rate rises dramatically. And the return on investment rises because Americans with postsecondary degrees and certificates pay higher taxes and have less dependence on social services funded by the American taxpayer. Studies demonstrate this ROI as being in the range of four to one to five to one, a rate of return that should speak compellingly across the political aisle. It’s notable that this rate of return doesn’t even begin to compute the benefits to subsequent generations, because the children of college graduates are much more likely to also complete a postsecondary certificate or degree.

With COVID, we are now emerging from another kind of war that has laid bare the discontinuities and inequities of higher education. Sustaining a post-pandemic economy and reducing Gilded Age-like discrepancies in average income among Americans can only be addressed through postsecondary training and education. It is also likely to help knit together a political divide that higher education must address, regardless of who is the White House.

Author/s: 
Stephen J. Handel and Eileen L. Strempel

Stephen J. Handel is a senior strategist for strategic higher education assessment use and opportunity at the College Board. Eileen L. Strempel is the inaugural dean of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

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Higher Ed Funding Model Barriers to College Access (opinion)

Since long before the pandemic, faculty, staff and administrators have debated the importance and consequences of an admission test requirement, most weighing the pros and cons for students and the institutions that serve them. Among the most popular objections to test requirements is that such policies are a barrier to access and student diversity at selective colleges -- they create impediments to admission among those underrepresented in higher education and result in fewer enrolled students of color, in particular. Consequently, colleges and universities should eliminate test requirements so that more of those students will apply, be selected, and choose to enroll.

In the recent Student Voice survey of 2,035 college students from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, which was presented by Kaplan, respondents across the board strongly support the removal of test score requirements in college admission processes. But dropping test scores may not help low-income and students of color as much as some might think. The biggest barrier to access is something seemingly unrelated to their enrollment -- the funding model of higher education.

Those who believe dropping test scores will create equality commit a fundamental attribution error: misassigning responsibility for low enrollments among students of color to an admission test requirement. … [R]ace is now a stronger predictor of test scores even than wealth.

Those who believe dropping test scores will create equality commit a fundamental attribution error: misassigning responsibility for low enrollments among students of color to an admission test requirement. Studies of test score distribution across socioeconomic variables have concluded that scores are reliable predictors of household wealth, and some analyses suggest that race is now a stronger predictor of test scores even than wealth. There is a straight-line relationship between household wealth and test scores. Generally speaking, the higher the wealth the higher the test score. This is why it is tempting to believe removing test scores from the admission equation would have the effect of opening a gate for lower-income students and diversifying the student population.

In my 30 years of work in higher education, the enrollment managers I have met are among the fairest and most decent people I know, and they are deeply committed to the principles of access and diversity in college admission. Many are also frustrated that diminishing government support, stagnant household income, stalled philanthropic activity, and the growing costs of education at their institutions translate to a loss of flexibility in the admission decision-making process.

Increasingly, at all but the most selective colleges and universities in the U.S., enrollment managers are confronted with the dilemma of serving ambitious goals related to access and diversity in a context of looming financial demands they are called upon to moderate. When I visit with my peers, they acknowledge it is not so much a test requirement that prevents the admission or enrollment of underrepresented students but rather the limits of what their colleges can afford in the discounting of tuition, upon which most are increasingly dependent for the cost of operation.

The long tail of slavery and structural racism have resulted in lower household incomes for underrepresented domestic students of color that place the goals of diversity and access in a standoff with student revenue goals. This tension is harder and harder for enrollment managers to reconcile. When non-tuition funding resources can no longer keep up with the rising costs of education, enrollment managers are left to balance operational budgets through the admission of students from higher-income households who can shoulder a greater share of the costs without overextending the financial aid budget.

The hard truth is that most colleges cannot afford to meet 100 percent of the financial need of the students they admit today from low-to-moderate income households, much less an expanded group of students with financial need. As costs increase, so does the pressure on colleges to meet new financial obligations.

Next year’s assignment for enrollment managers at tuition-dependent colleges is to generate more net student revenue after financial aid than they did last year. What choice then is there but to recruit, admit, and attempt to enroll students from higher-income households (who are more often from white families)? When searching for colleges, affluent families convey tacit expectations of superlative amenities, yet sometimes complain about the increasing price of tuition to fund them. Their expectations of us to exceed what the competition offers and our collective inability to resist the temptation of sponsored excesses do not risk the exclusion of their prodigy. When we spend more than what is necessary to deliver excellence in education, we run the risk of leaving behind the students who are less capable of helping us balance our budgets.

Advocating for Change

Proponents of access and diversity in higher education should focus more of their attention on waning funding sources, calling attention to the fact that we have a painfully low tax base from which to support education as a percentage of GDP compared to other developed countries, and advocate for more creative pricing strategies. They might also challenge industry-wide inefficiencies, the arms race to brand building fueled by college rankings, and the less consequential institutional investments that drive up the cost of education without a meaningful impact on the student experience.

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These factors and growing operational budgets ultimately limit the capacity of admission officers to admit and provide financial aid to traditionally underrepresented students.

Critics seem convinced that admission test requirements are what keeps lower-income students -- including many students of color -- from gaining admission and adequate financial aid to support enrollment at the college of choice. If that were true, colleges that became test-optional years ago would be more diverse today. Even if we all become test-optional, if we do not solve the funding and cost challenges that lead our institutions to seek higher net revenue from students and their families, it is likely that an alternative apparatus that leaves behind students with financial need will replace test requirements.

Working at a college with a sizeable endowment that can support a no-loan policy to meet financial need is an enviable perch from which to make these observations. I worry, however, that my colleagues across the country, who are obligated to increase net student revenue at their institutions to make up for funding shortfalls of expanding operational budgets, will soon discover what enrollment managers at test-optional institutions have known for years: a test requirement is not the most formidable threat to access and student diversity in admission. That distinction belongs to the funding of higher education’s unsustainable cost structure.

Author/s: 
Joe Bagnoli

Joe Bagnoli is vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College, a need-blind institution that meets 100 percent of student financial need with no loans.

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How students want colleges to handle campus safety and security (infographic)

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63% of students whose colleges currently use volunteer mediators and other mental health professionals as part of campus safety departments believe it’s a good idea to do so

From free speech and campus security approaches to Title IX regulation and COVID-19 mitigation, here’s what students say would help them feel safe and secure.

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