May 2, 2012
Andrew Delbanco (Columbia University) has published an excellent new book on higher education, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton University Press). Inside Higher Ed’s Serena Golden interviewed him about the book. The whole interview is worth reading (better: read the book), but I found this Q&A on financial aid especially on point:
Q: “[W]hile funding of grants for low-income students has failed to keep up with the rising cost of college, there has been robust growth” in the federal loans that go to middle-income students. How do you think financial aid should be restructured?
A: There is a serious problem whenever two legitimate goals — in this case, making college more affordable for the stressed middle class while also expanding college opportunity for severely needy students — come into conflict with one another. This is the case today as resources available to achieve these objectives are overstretched and failing to keep pace with demand. Both goals cannot be met without significantly expanding public and private investment in financial aid for students at all institutions and at all levels of need. Ultimately, it’s a matter of public commitment to the value of postsecondary education — and, unfortunately, colleges have been losing rather than gaining public respect at just the time when they depend on it more than ever. We need a serious national discussion of creative proposals such as those put forward several years ago by Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson in their report “Fulfilling the Commitment” — for example, basing federal grants on family data drawn directly from the IRS; capping loan repayment at a certain percentage of post-college income; establishing college-tuition savings accounts with tax-free interest for Pell-eligible families, and so on. There is no magic bullet for the college-cost problem — but these ideas, as well as others put forward by Donald Heller (basing all grants on needs analysis rather than on “merit”) and Ronald Ehrenberg (rewarding institutions with federal dollars keyed to the enrollment of Pell-eligible students), point in the right direction.