Affordability, equity, Higher Education

Simplify FAFSA? How about no FAFSA.

This morning’s higher education news is filled with comments about the finances. Secretary of Education DeVos has extended the pause in student loan repayments for another month. This is in response to COVID-19 and the number of people in financial distress right now. Good. I just wish it would be for longer than a month because we all know it will take longer than a month for folks to get back on track with careers, rent, and general economic security.

Universities are considering various downsizing options in the face of strained finances or as a new strategic plan, but implementation of these plans is in question. Faltering enrollments are causing administrators to consider streamlining major offerings. Others appear to be reconsidering tenure track faculty, although the comments were later deemed “flippant” and insensitive.

Then, there is the drumbeat of inequity in access to higher education. This morning’s big contributions were a discussion of family debt on the College Scorecard. Some of the biggest family debt (parent plus loans), happens at HBCUs. Then there is the story on how our first generation students and students from historically underrepresented groups do not get enough information to know they can appeal financial aid decisions. And of course, Senator Lamar Alexander is still trying to simplify the FAFSA. Yes, please. It would be grand to get this done.

But here’s the thing, if you look over months of articles and data, it is clear that our access to education problem for families of lesser means, and yes that skews families of color, is persistent and pervasive. As a culture we get ourselves trapped in circular arguments. We believe in merit and equal opportunity, but we recognize that there are structural elements that are barriers to those opportunities. Then we try to right those wrongs with subsidized student loans, access programs, and admissions practices that attempt to improve the diversity of our student bodies. Then we get mad because those steps start to look like something other than merit, which makes us angry and we start to scale it back. That anger may be misplaced, of course, but that is the cycle of the arguments. The same people end up losing every time.

So simplifying the FAFSA is a noble goal, but it will not get us out of this cycle. As far as I can tell, those subsidized student loans are mostly helping the haves, not the have nots. They bridge the gap to elite colleges, perhaps, and would be nowhere near enough money for those colleges if the families did not have funds to contribute or the university did not supply lots of additional scholarships for those families who can’t contribute. Parent Plus loans make me shudder because those who need them tend not to be able to afford them. No, this system is not doing what we want it to do for access to education.

So, let’s really simplify. Make public higher education tuition and fees free. No FAFSA required, just free. Set a reasonable cost per student rate, that takes regional cost of living into account, and provide that funding to the state colleges and universities. Then fix the state and federal tax codes to make sure that all of us are paying our fair share to support that public higher education state by state. A progressive tax system will be based on earnings, so that takes care of the problem of people with degrees who work in lower paying careers (social work, education, and many other civic focused jobs come to mind). We don’t need different pay-back rates or loan forgiveness. Just tax appropriately. Graduates who move into higher paying careers will pay more, of course. Students who fail to graduate (an unfortunate scenario, but it will happen even when education is free), will not be saddled with debt they can’t repay and bad credit that keeps them from surviving. They will just limit their access to careers that pay higher wages (perhaps). Progressive tax structures still work for this.

Now some will jump to accountability questions and I do believe in those. The quality of education can still be evaluated, so can degree completion rates and how universities monitor this. Students can still be asked to leave college – free doesn’t mean forever. We can think through how we address graduate education, perhaps. None of these questions should be barriers to free education, because the equation is still simple. Education tends to lead to higher wages, higher wages should lead to higher tax contributions that should be directed back to education. The system should support itself. I understand the political complications, but the rest makes sense.

As for FAFSA, save that simplified form for the cost of housing, I suppose. That might be useful.

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