The Barrier to a College Degree

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Last week I traveled to Washington to meet with several educational leaders and to attend the NAICU (National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities) Annual Meeting.  NAICU, with over 1000 members, “serves as the unified national voice of independent higher education.  Since 1976, the association has represented private colleges and universities on policy issues with the federal government, such as those affecting student aid, taxation, and government regulation.”

NAICU provides statistics to each institution to help them understand the impact of federal financial aid and to use in efforts to encourage congressional representatives to maintain and increase the funding to these programs.  For example, in the state of Massachusetts during the 2011-12 academic year, college students received 451,176 Federal Loans with a value of $2,826,624,741. In that same year, 140,448 Pell Grants were awarded in Massachusetts valued at $486,037,754. This seems like a reasonable investment in higher education. But sadly, it is not enough.

As I waited at the airport for my flight home, I tried to catch up on my reading.  I read a report that summarized a study conducted in November-December 2012 by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup.  Most people know about the work conducted by Gallup. The Lumina Foundation is a private foundation which funds studies and programs consistent with their mission of “enrolling and graduating more students from college, especially 21st century students: low-income students, students of color, first generation students, and adult learners.”

What this study revealed is that 97% of the respondents (from a sample of over 1000 participants over the age of 18) believed that attaining a college degree was important.  Consistent with the Pew research I discussed in the past few weeks, the respondents related their attainment of a college degree with the ability to get a good job (96%) and to earn more money (96%). Even more, 97% also expressed a belief that a college degree is necessary to secure a person’s future financial stability.

However, this study revealed the barriers to attaining a degree as well.  And the most significant barrier for all respondents was cost.  In fact, 74% of the respondents said that higher education is unaffordable.

There are other important barriers for adults in the workforce who want to attend college to improve their employment and family situations.  For these adults, family responsibilities and job responsibilities are important factors.  While a majority wants to go back to school and thinks about this option, less than 40% express the likelihood that they will be able to earn a degree.

As I have written before, the responsibility for affordability does not rest solely with the federal government. But the fact is that the rhetoric of economic stimulus and job creation cannot be taken seriously in isolation from greater investments in people who desire a college degree.

If Americans want to attain a degree… if Americans clearly see a degree as critical to employment and income… then why is this not a central element of an economic stimulus program?

On behalf of the college students in Massachusetts who benefit from the current federal financial aid, I say thank you to our congressional leaders.  But on behalf of all of those left out because of lack of resources, I say please remove these barriers. And believe it or not, a vast majority of college students repay their loans.  What a great investment in our country’s future.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)



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Guest Friday, 25 July 2014