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College Costs, Debt Still Top Public Concerns

Feb 07, 2013

By Patrick Reimherr, Marcie W.M. Foster, and Julie Strawn

New public opinion research that emerged from a coalition of postsecondary education stakeholders, College Is Worth It, provides new evidence that Americans resolutely believe that college matters—and not just for an elite few. Moreover, the public believes that financial aid reform is necessary and should place a high priority on increasing the number of individuals with a postsecondary degree and making sure that college is affordable and accessible, particularly in light of a changing student demographic that includes higher proportions of adults with work and family responsibilities.

Hart Research, together with HCM Strategists and the Winston Group, released findings from two surveys designed to provide a fresh take on the attitudes of Americans on the importance of college, current challenges facing college students, and potential financial aid reform approaches. The results reflect that a majority of people believe college is important, yet deep and persistent challenges still hinder both college access and completion:

  • Americans believe that earning a postsecondary degree is important for the majority of individuals. 80 percent of engaged voters, 92 percent of African-American parents, and 83 percent of Hispanic parents believe that completing a degree or credential is important for a large majority of young people today.
  • Americans identify the biggest challenges in postsecondary education as student loan debt, college affordability, and poor completion. 79 percent of engaged voters say that individuals’ amassing large amounts of debt to pay for their college degrees or credentials “happens a lot.”  Student loan debt is seen as the most common problem with postsecondary education.
  • Respondents recognize equity gaps in college access for low-income students. 53 percent say it “happens a lot” that individuals from low-income families and communities of color who are motivated to enroll in college are not able to do so because of financial challenges.

The results of the survey show strong public interest in improving the higher education system: nearly half say that major changes (41 percent) or a complete overhaul (8 percent) is needed. When asked about specific policy proposals to reform student aid, respondents reacted positively to those that maintained access, increased affordability, and held institutions more accountable for student degree completion.

While those who believe that completion requirements should be tied to financial aid may point to the results to bolster their case, there is reason for pause. Survey respondents did voice support for tying financial aid to completion metrics; however, they expressed the greatest resistance to proposals that focus on reducing the time to a degree. Proposals to require students to complete a college degree within a defined time period in order to be eligible for financial aid were viewed as unfair and “fail to take into account how life happens and unexpected circumstances…may delay one’s path to a degree.”

Furthermore, the group discussions revealed that, “the issue of low completion rates is not on the public’s radar screen, and there is no awareness of how low completion rates are.”  As recently noted by Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a close look at the evidence on tying academic achievement to college outcomes reveals very little empirical support to date. In evaluating proposals to tie grant aid to completion, we must make evidence-based decisions that allow us to pilot and model any negative consequences on student access and outcomes.

Student aid is complex and must meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body.  There are multiple areas where we can make the system more effective at increasing access to and completion of college by low-income underrepresented populations; more efficient in terms of maximizing the impact of limited federal dollars; and simpler for students and their families. These new polling results reveal a strong public interest in making the student aid system work better for students and families but also a concern that such reform should not produce unintended consequences for students that are working, underprepared, or disadvantaged. In light of these new findings, before declaring completion is “king”, policymakers and analysts should look closely at the evidence base to ensure that reform advantages all students, not just a select few.

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