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College Affordability – Whose Responsibility Is It?

By Bob Collins

I have been very fortunate to spend my entire professional career in higher education administration. With nearly four decades of practical experience, I know firsthand that innovation, with advancing technology and improving learning science, reduces educational costs. In addition, I know personally that significant changes may only require simple solutions.

Largely, Americans still believe in higher education as a public good. In a recent study conducted by researchers at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Americans' Views of Higher Education as a Public and Private Good, three-quarters of respondents said public funding of higher education was either an excellent or a good investment. With such support, this is a beneficial position to open the dialogue on college affordability.

Ultimately, the forthcoming Higher Education Committee of 50 recommendations will focus on public policy at the federal level for undergraduate students. Without a doubt, college affordability is a shared responsibility among the federal, state, and local governments and its respective administrative agencies, as well as higher education institutions, students, and families of current and future college bound students.

Nonetheless, as college faculty and higher education administrators – we too share the responsibility of keeping college affordable. Simply creating new laws, or making changes to existing laws and regulations, is not always necessary to improve affordability and access to quality higher education. Collectively, we can make college more affordable: it is time as a community that we re-examine textbook costs.

A recent survey covered by Inside Higher Ed indicates the cost of textbooks has increased 1000 percent the last four decades – that is outrageous. All colleges should endeavor to provide all students with more affordable electronic learning resources (digital courseware). On behalf of students, we cannot afford to wait any longer. Actually, the U.S. Department of Education is currently inviting applications for new awards from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) for open textbooks. The time to act is now.

The Higher Education Committee of 50 affordability subgroup’s research on financial literacy programs found existing legislation signed into law earlier this year, requiring the Financial Literacy and Education Commission (FLEC) to establish best practices for higher education institutions to teach financial literacy skills and provide information to assist students in making student loan borrowing decisions. This is good for us to know and do — and with a more comprehensive review of the broader category of financial wellness, we find growing attention and awareness at the Higher Education Financial Wellness Association (HEFWA) Summit in Portland last month. In more than one session, presentations included discussion of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which asserts that physiological and safety and security needs — including personal and financial security — must be met before an individual can fulfill other needs like social belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. It makes good sense to reference the hierarchy as we’re having discussions about wellness — after all, isn’t that a fundamental objective of higher education — to help individuals move up the pyramid to achieve self-fulfillment?

At the bottom of the pyramid are basic needs, the foundation of individual strength. That said, the June 2018 Trellis Company Student Financial Wellness Survey Report reflects growing recognition that the interplay of student collegiate finances and academic performance influences key student outcomes like retention and graduation. Students experiencing high levels of stress related to finances and meeting basic needs may struggle to reach their academic potential. Alarmingly, the survey showed more than two-thirds of respondents are not confident they will be able to pay off the debt they acquired while in school.

In another HEFWA Summit presentation, we learned more about behavioral economics — a fascinating concept how small changes in decision framing can have significant, positive impacts. In fact, Richard Thaler from the University of Chicago won the Nobel Prize in Economics last year for his work in this field. Which leads me to The Case for Transparent Financial Aid Award Letters, a recent policy paper from New America Foundation and uAspire. But, I digress; our Higher Education Committee of 50 colleagues in the access subgroup will address “decoding the cost of college.”  Clearly, affordability intertwines with transparency, access, and accountability. The bottom line is to help students and families make informed decisions.

Thus, consider this idea: what if the standard process for unsubsidized loan borrowers was to pay the student loan interest while enrolled, unless the borrower decides to “opt-in” to accrue the loan interest while enrolled – the exact opposite of today’s process. Behavioral economists suggest this “innovative” standard process could reduce the total cost of individual student loan debt by hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars, depending on amounts borrowed. Imagine that – improving college affordability with a simple business process change.