3 presidents weigh in: How to make tuition more affordable

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3 presidents weigh in: How to make tuition more affordable

In recent years, rising tuition has made it more difficult for families to afford college, preventing qualified students from getting degrees and perpetuating the cycle of income inequality. And as student loan debt rises, colleges and universities face more public scrutiny over costs and more pressure to help students graduate with less debt.

The Conversation asked three college presidents what they believe needs to happen to make college more affordable for low-income, minority, and working-class students. Here are three strategies that will lower college costs, according to the three presidents.  

Strategy 1: Invest in higher ed funding

Jill Tiefenthaler, president of Colorado College

Some may argue that colleges only need to cut costs and lower tuition to become more affordable. “This would make college more affordable but it would also reduce the quality of the education provided,” argues Tiefenthaler.

Instead, leaders need to strengthen the sources of college funding: the state and federal government, higher ed institutions, and students’ families, she recommends.

State governments have historically been the primary source of funding for students who attend two- and four-year public institutions. But as states face tightening budgets, “I am not optimistic that students can count on increased support from states,” writes Tiefenthaler.

The federal government, however, could lower college costs by expanding Pell Grants, she argues. The maximum Pell Grant is $6,095, but only students whose family income is less than $60,000 qualify for the full award. The grant decreases significantly as family income increases, she adds. The federal government should increase the income cut-off for Pell Grants and provide the full award to any student who qualifies, she recommends.

Private institutions can grow their endowments, which would allow them to offer more financial aid to low- and middle-income students, writes Tiefenthaler. Private institutions can also reduce merit aid and reallocate those funds to need-based financial aid, she recommends.

Three innovative ways to use financial aid to promote student success

Strategy 2: Promote timely graduation

Eric Barron, president of Pennsylvania State University (PSU)

When we talk about affordability we tend to fixate on tuition costs and overlook the total cost of a degree, argues Barron.

To minimize the total cost of a degree, higher ed leaders need to ensure students graduate on time. “A tuition increase pales in comparison to going to school for another year,” he says. Students who accumulate extra debt and then drop out without a degree are in an even worse situation, he argues.

Many institutions struggle to keep at-risk students on track to graduate on time. These students face many graduation barriers. At PSU, 62% of first-generation, need-based students work an average of 22 hours a week, which limits their ability to take a full credit load and lengthens their time to degree, explains Barron. These students also drop classes more frequently and have little time to participate in important experiences, like research or internships. They also get discouraged, he writes.

When we “help every student, regardless of financial capability, to graduate, and graduate on time,” we save students from crushing debt, writes Barron. To start, institutions can connect students to financial literacy advisors and tool that map out the most cost-efficient path to graduation, he recommends.

How one university supports on-time graduation for low-income students

Strategy 3: Prepare college-ready students

Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA)

Like Barron, Verret points out that time-to-degree is an important factor in rising college costs. An American student takes an average of 5.1 years to earn a bachelor’s degree—and each extra year increases the cost of a degree by 25%, writes Verret.

Students often struggle to graduate on time when they’re placed into remedial courses. To help students avoid remedial classes, we need to build a more equitable K-12 education pipeline that graduates college-ready students, he argues. A quality K-12 pipeline requires a fleet of great teachers. To attract great teachers, we need to elevate the teaching profession and reward educators for their service by forgiving their student loans, he adds.

The success of students at XULA, which placed 6th in the nation on a New York Times list of colleges contributing to social mobility, and other HBCUs proves talent is not associated with socioeconomic status, he argues. “The education of our citizens is not only an individual but a collective benefit: America thrives if it develops all of its talent,” he writes (Tiefenthaler et al., The Conversation, 8/29).

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