Of the current financial challenges facing both individuals and institutions of higher education, the cost of attendance and value of pursuing a postsecondary degree continues to be a significant concern. Enrollment trends and the financial strain of the pandemic have left many institutions even more focused on stabilizing revenue and controlling for expenses. Prospective students and families wrestle with the ongoing critiques of the cost of higher education and whether the return on their investment will be worth it. At the same time, those who are already student loan borrowers now face the restart of regular payments alongside the evolving landscape of loan forgiveness. This article will examine some of the challenges facing these constituencies as well as what promising practices and policies are emerging at the institutional, state, and federal levels to reconcile both institutional and individual financial strain.
Colleges In Crisis
In addition to the growing list of colleges closing or merging, questions about financial stability are a significant concern for higher education professionals. The Association of American Colleges & Universities released a study showing that 74% of faculty, mid-level and senior administrators polled expressed concern about financial constraints at their colleges. In addition to the expected trend of declining enrollments due to birth rate changes and the impact that will have on tuition revenue, colleges and universities have been navigating ongoing changes in federal and state funding for higher education for nearly two decades. The unpredictability of these revenue streams and the ongoing uncertainty of the future direction of the COVID-19 pandemic paint a difficult picture for senior leaders and others with fiduciary responsibility for our institutions.
Borrowers on the Brink
Those already holding student loan debt have felt the strain of keeping up with student loan payments. Whether from an inability to make payments, the negative impacts on borrower’s credit, or the lack of clarity on how to qualify for loan forgiveness through public service or income-based repayment, individuals who have taken on student loan debt are struggling. We know that student loan debt rests more significantly with women and people of color, thereby negatively influencing their long-term financial prospects. Given these challenges, it is understandable that prospective students question taking that kind of risk on their future. We have seen the financial benefits to borrowers in this period of relief while payments have been on pause. Although a promise of loan forgiveness is now clearer than it was at the start of the summer, the path forward remains unclear and fraught with legal challenges. All of this leaves students and their families with uncertainty in a volatile financial market and rising inequity across society.
How can we reconcile the financial stress on colleges and universities without placing an ongoing burden on students to fill in resource gaps? How can we make college accessible to a diverse student population without further disadvantaging those historically underrepresented in higher education? There are several policy challenges and opportunities that may help us move forward.
Our own institutions play an important role in the college affordability landscape. Some colleges and universities have begun to meet 100% of students’ financial needs without requiring them to take on loans, although most of these institutions are highly selective private colleges and universities. Recently, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul and both the State University of New York and the City University of New York permanently ended the practice of withholding transcripts from students with outstanding balances, which removes a barrier to employment and other opportunities for students facing financial hardship. Other colleges and universities should consider practices like these and identify ways to eliminate obstacles for students who have completed their degrees.
At the state level over the last four decades, funding for public higher education has decreased during economic downturns and increased as the economy improved (SHEEO, 2021). Beginning in 2001 however, annual increases in education appropriations per FTE have been smaller than the declines during each recession. As such, state support for public higher education still lags below average despite several years of increases. These appropriations vary significantly from state to state, as outlined in the The State Higher Education Finance (SHEF) report. We can begin by identifying each state’s current breakdown of state and local funding and student tuition revenue and then work to advocate for increases in state appropriations, which have been shown to lead to a shorter time earning degrees and substantially lower student debt for students (Chakrabarti, 2020).
In 2021, federal lawmakers introduced three major legislative proposals to improve college affordability. The America’s College Promise Act, the Debt-Free College Act, and the College for All Act each seek to address the cost of college through different programs but with the goal of creating a new partnership between the federal government and states to better fund public higher education. All three bills are currently being reviewed by various house and senate committees. At the federal level, action has been taken to eliminate debt for former students misled by their institutions, and to reset the standing of borrowers who were in delinquency or default have already begun to make a difference. The expansion of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness waiver is another program poised to bring about change.
Navigating this landscape will continue to be a challenge for institutions and individuals. Doing so with an equity mindset that prioritizes the financial wellbeing and access of all students is critical. There is a shared responsibility between institutions, state, and federal lawmakers in providing adequate resources to deliver high quality education that helps students meet their postgraduate goals and continues to provide the things that make higher education valuable.
Engage with colleagues on evaluating policies and practices at your institution to identify barriers and opportunities that improve the financial knowledge, access, and resources for students
Find resources and actions at your state level to impact better support for higher education and engage with local lawmakers on policy priorities
Follow policy trends and pending legislation at the federal level and talk with students and colleagues on their potential impact
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