Reform the HEA to Address the Unmet Needs of Low-Income and Non-Traditional Students

While the stereotype of college students being fresh out of high school and dependent on their parents is certainly true for some, the balance has tipped to the point where the majority of postsecondary students today are independent and perhaps have spent time working or raising a family between high school and their attendance in college. This is one of the most critical reasons why the Higher Education Act (HEA), which was last reauthorized in 2008, needs to be updated. In recognition of the many ways that HEA could be improved to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body, CLASP has updated our policy priorities for reforming the HEA. These policy recommendations reflect our goal of boldly improving federal higher education policy to educate and prepare students for economic success, and preparing lower-income individuals for a rapidly shifting labor market. The reauthorization of the HEA offers a significant opportunity to:

  • make financial aid responsive to today’s students by addressing the needs and attendance patterns of non-traditional and low-income students;
  • transform education delivery to support student success by connecting student financial aid with other programs, benefits, and sources of student assistance, establishing robust career pathways, and better integrating competency-based education; and
  • leverage outcome information to support better decision making through data collections that reflect the current student population and measure their success in finding employment.

Fifty-one percent of today’s undergraduates are independent, 40 percent are adults age 25 or older, 27 percent work full-time, and 26 percent are parents. These students bring life experience, which enhances their educational experience and, at some institutions, contributes to higher completion rates as compared to their younger peers. However, the temporal and logistical constraints facing these students require access to more flexible schedules and methods of delivering education to accommodate their many responsibilities. Students also need better information to help them make good educational decisions, as these choices carry more consequence when combined with balancing work and/or family.

Today’s postsecondary students not only contend with the current offering of programs and information not meeting their needs, but they have unmet financial need as well. On average, a community college student is estimated to incur $16,325 in education-related expenses annually, with only $3,347 of that comprising tuition and fees. The remaining costs include those for transportation, books, supplies, food, and housing, for which grant aid often – and for low-income students in particular, virtually always – is insufficient to cover. In 2000, the lowest-income students had an average of $5,985 annually in unmet need; in 2012 that figure had nearly doubled to $10,061.

In general, it is clear that student needs are often not met by what many traditional colleges currently offer. CLASP’s recommendations for improvements to the HEA will shift federal policy to better support low-income and non-traditional students.  As postsecondary credentials are increasingly necessary to secure good jobs and advance economically, reforms to the HEA are essential to help all individuals obtain the higher education and skills they need to enter and advance in the workforce.