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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.
Ironically, by restricting applicability to accredited colleges, Title IV requires the poorest students to enroll in riskier, higher-priced postsecondary options and not the increasing number of low-cost alternatives, many of which are offered by learning providers other than traditional, accredited postsecondary institutions. Today, there are more than 550,000 postsecondary credentials that are outside the Title IV system, including certificates, badges, licenses and certifications. These range in length, price, value and meaning, but many have gone through evaluations such as American Council on Education Learning Evaluations to determine how many college credits they equate to. Many also cost a fraction of the amount of the equivalent college programs and can be completed much more quickly than a traditional degree program or at a flexible pace.
General Assembly, for example, provides in-person and online courses in software engineering, data science, user experience design and digital marketing. The company reports that it has so far helped more than 16,000 individuals land careers in the tech industry. Quantic School of Business and Technology offers online business degrees, providing students with an immersive—and mobile-first—academic experience that can be completed in just 14 months. Though Quantic is accredited, neither provider currently participates in Title IV.
Too often, lower-income students are forced to go into greater debt by the very financial aid system meant to help them avoid it, perpetuating inequity within higher education and the workforce. Colleges, universities and other learning providers need greater flexibility in designing programs that meet learners’ financial and logistical needs and encompass the skills required for their chosen career.
Critics of expanding Title IV eligibility to alternative postsecondary providers usually cite the lack of standards for evaluating the “quality” of these providers. While nobody would argue that “low-quality” providers should be able to access taxpayer funds, this argument assumes that the existing systems are an appropriate and effective evaluation standard. In reality, our nation is going through the process of writing off hundreds of billions of dollars of debt distributed under the current quality-assurance system.
There are other ways to assess quality beyond the traditional systems. Organizations such as ACE and the National College Credit Recognition Service evaluate alternative providers to determine credit equivalence, and many colleges allow students to transfer credit from alternative programs toward degrees. When prior learning assessments are accepted by colleges and universities, research indicates they can increase completion rates and improve affordability.
To be clear, this is not simply about letting alternative providers access Title IV aid, but about redesigning our system to decrease risk for learners and improve outcomes. Rather than simply forgiving debt, we must rethink the system as a whole. We currently allow learners with the freedom to pay for their education out of pocket to pick and choose which programs make the best sense for their academic and financial needs, while low-income learners have fewer options and, often, take on greater debt. We need systemic change to give all students the best chance to succeed.