Four Ways Congress Can Help a New Generation of Students

Four Ways Congress Can Help a New Generation of Students
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Today’s college students bear little resemblance to the young middle-class freshmen tossing Frisbees on the campus quad in popular movies. Nearly 40 percent of today’s college students are now over the age of 25. A quarter of students are parents, and nearly 60 percent work while enrolled in college. About half come from families with parents who did not earn a bachelor’s degree.

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Although this shift began more than two decades ago, education policy is still catching up.  As a result, nearly half the students who start college fail to earn a degree after six years. The statistics for low-income and first-generation students and students of color are far more troubling.

Lawmakers must acknowledge how stubbornly out-of-date our federal higher education is as Congress rewrites the Higher Education Act in the coming months. Here are four ways in which policymakers can align federal policy with today’s students to help ensure success for today’s students.

Take on “Verification Melt”

College costs aren’t the only roadblock to enrollment. College students struggle to make sense of, and complete, the paperwork to make good on the promise of financial aid.  As a result, some 40 percent of low-income students accepted to college never show up to class in the fall.

The challenge stems from the fact that nearly a third of students who file the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) are selected for the verification process, which requires them to submit additional information before they can receive federal grants or loans. And it’s a process that disproportionately affects low-income students. Half of low-income high school seniors are selected for income verification. Estimates suggest that failure to complete verification blocks as many as one-in-five eligible students from receiving federal Pell Grants.

Tackling so-called “verification melt” doesn’t mean doing away with verification. But Congress can make it easier for students by granting the U.S. Department of Education access to students’ tax returns, to ensure that students who need tax information to access financial aid can do so easily to receive the aid for which they are eligible.

Fund Micro-Grants to Get Students Over the Finish Line

Financial hardship doesn’t end with filing the FAFSA. A nonprofit organization called University Innovation Alliance estimates that thousands of Pell-eligible seniors are at risk of dropping out because of financial shortfalls of less than $1,000. In an era where four in ten Americans don’t have the $400 to cover emergency expenses, it’s easy to see how car repairs resulting in lost wages create roadblocks for students. In far too many cases, unresolved parking tickets or campus fees stand between students and their diploma. But colleges are often reluctant to offer micro-grants, for fear that micro grants might have an adverse effect on a student’s state and federal aid eligibility.

Congress should clarify that institutions can provide micro-grants of $2,000 or less to students who have progressed at least three-quarters of the way through their program of study without jeopardizing their future state or federal aid eligibility. 

Consider Costs Beyond Tuition

Research suggests that more than half of students lack sufficient resources to buy or rent required books and materials. A typical student spends about $1,200 on books and supplies each year. Free digital media, textbooks, or other materials can help reduce the cost, saving students as much as $120 per course. Congress should boost funding for the Open Textbooks Pilot program to help institutions develop and use more open educational resources so greater numbers of students can benefit.

For many low-income students, paying for textbooks are the least of their concerns. Some studies suggest that as many as 56 percent of community college students and 11 percent of students at four-year institutions experience food insecurity. Yet while eighteen percent of students are eligible for food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), just 3 percent enroll in the program. Congress could help by rethinking SNAP benefits for students enrolled in postsecondary education, working to create a seamless connection between the FAFSA and SNAP applications.

Support Student Parents

Nearly 5 million college students are parents. And more than half of student parents drop out without a degree or certificate in six years. These students face additional demands on their time and their finances. Nationally, child care expenses soared to $9,000 per child in 2018. In states like New York and Massachusetts, parents pay, on average, more than $14,000 per child each year.

But, as child care costs have risen, on-campus child care has declined. Between 2003 and 2013, the proportion of community colleges providing on-campus child care declined from 53 percent to 46 percent.

To help support student parents, institutions need relationships with local child care providers and guidelines for serving student-parents who need last-minute care to succeed in school. Today, funds are limited, and the incentives are weak for institutions to create childcare options for parent learners. Congress can allow institutions to set aside a portion of federally-provided campus funds to form critical child-care partnerships.

The time is now for today’s higher education policies to better reflect the realities of today’s students. With each year that passes without greater flexibility, streamlined federal processes, and common-sense reforms that recognize the needs of today’s students, our communities and economies suffer. Together, these federal policy solutions are game-changing for millions of students.

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