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A consensus has clearly emerged that higher education affordability needs to be addressed by colleges and universities, states, and the federal government. Less clear is how to address the problem, and perhaps more fundamentally, how to decide what affordability means.

Affordability has been the topic of considerable debate at forums hosted by Congressional leaders, think tanks, policy groups, and private foundations. National experts with considerable knowledge, wisdom, and commitment to equity in education have played important roles in shaping the policy discourse, many with professed answers about what affordability is and proposals about how to measure it.

However, largely absent from the policy discourse is the important but often-overlooked question that has to be part of the discourse, “Who decides for whom whether college is affordable?” As the debate about defining affordability continues I notice few perspectives from those for whom affordability is most threatened: lower-income families, working adults, and single parents, for example.

The omission of these voices is troubling and may enable experts to posit ideas and proposals in a one-dimensional manner.  I fear that an undertone of paternalism and deficit thinking has emerged in the affordability debate. My concerns grow from my study of financial aid, but also my experiences growing up in a lower-income family.  

When I was eight years old, my mom, who started but never finished college, decided to get an associate degree at Pima Community College, in Tucson, Ariz., where we lived. At times my parents worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. We qualified for free and reduced federal school lunch. Yet, somehow my parents decided that sending my mom back to school was not only important, but possible.

On Saturdays we loaded into the pickup truck (we only had the one car) and drove 45 minutes to the community college, where we spent the better part of the day, with books, homework, packed lunches, and my father wrangling us three boys while my mom attended her classes. Within a few years she earned her associate degree, then transferred to the University of Arizona, where in 1994 she completed her doctorate. She entered the professoriate and has spent her career teaching at regional public institutions where many of her students are the first in their families to attend college  and many are from lower-income households. 

Individuals and families across the country are living in similar circumstances on a daily basis, yet their perspectives are not well-represented in the policy debate. This is concerning with respect to equity and democratic inclusion, but also because it may lead to bad policies. For example, to illustrate a scenario when college may not be affordable I heard one national expert give the example of a low-income, single mother with four children. This focuses our policy making on the single mother rather than the systemic barriers (e.g., affordable child care, public transportation, low tuition) she may face.

Moreover, it overlooks her capacities, strengths, and autonomy to define for herself what is affordable. My own parents made decisions about affordability because they found ways (e.g., my grandmother frequently watched us) to overcome systemic barriers. 

I wonder how the debate about college affordability would differ if we did more to include struggling families and students in the conversation. I suspect we would hear more about challenges with reliable transportation, affordable child care, and steady work, as a few examples. We might consider how ties to family and land influence where people are willing to live and move to go to school and find employment (rather than assuming people are as mobile as capital).

I think we would also hear about the many ways in which lower-income families are resourceful in finding ways to get to college, such as relying on extended family and pooling resources. 

Aspects of the current policy debate too often assume that we need to put in place structures to prevent bad decisions (whatever those may be) and to define affordability for low-income folks. One proposal has been to encourage low-income families to be more disciplined in their savings by opening college savings accounts. More than a quarter of low-income families in this country do not have bank accounts, and the average income of a college savings account holder is $148,000.

Another proposal is to advise students about affordability via a sophisticated return on investment framework that connects college, major and career choice. I wonder how many of us with doctorates who ended up in the academy used such an approach and whether the return on investment is favorable (I think I do not want to know the answer to that last question). 

By their nature, policies are not designed for individual circumstance. Nor should policies be made based on anecdotes like my own. Nevertheless, as one panelist put it, affordability is a "gut level" decision, implying that ultimately individuals have to be trusted to do what they think is best for themselves. Low-income individuals are as capable of making decisions as high-income folks, especially when barriers to enacting choices are removed. I did not grow up in a family that discussed return on investments, risk sharing, or college savings accounts, and at times I recall my parents being worried about making ends meet.  

But my parents did not live in fear (as I heard one expert say about low-income families do) and they exhibited considerable financial savvy in raising three children with little money and no wealth. Through public support, such as subsidized education, and personal agency, my parents were able to overcome systemic barriers, even if well-intentioned policy experts might have advised them that college was not affordable.

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