By Jake Brymner, Regional Affairs Manager, The Campaign for College Opportunity
As our nation’s capital prepares for a presidential transition in power, The Campaign for College Opportunity travelled to Washington, D.C. with a different agenda. Twenty-two student ambassadors joined the Campaign alongside some of our community and business partners to call for financial aid policy to accommodate the growing number of students qualified to pursue higher education. Did you know that a record number of high school students are graduating and are college-ready and bound, yet too many of these students are facing the cost of college as a barrier to their attendance? And while we often hear of how missing the chance to earn a college degree has major lifelong implications for individuals, we don’t always realize how it’s also a major loss to our nation’s economy. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that the U.S. needs to produce 11 million more post-secondary credentials by 2025 just to meet projected workforce demands making the imperatives and benefits of student-centered financial aid policy clearer than ever.
The Campaign was lucky enough to be joined by a diverse coalition of partners including the California Business Roundtable, Young Invincibles, the Southern California College Access Network, and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce who, like us, recognize the importance of a student-centered agenda that strengthens and simplifies FAFSA, increases and protects Pell grants, and streamlines student loan repayment options. Even more important to the conversation were the voices of student leaders from throughout California who shared their stories and discussed the real-world effects of financial aid policies. The talent, passion and diversity of these students was representative of California; despite their varied backgrounds and paths to higher education, their call to our elected leaders was consistent: Congress must act now to keep college affordable and preserve the unique opportunity it allows.
Our presence at the capital was met with a receptive audience and uncertain political climate. Elected officials and staff were grateful to hear students themselves speaking to how the FAFSA, Pell Grants, or loans have played a role in their college journeys. Many expressed support for the policy changes we discussed, but were less certain about how they could move forward legislatively. The Higher Education Act has been awaiting reauthorization for years and would address many of these issues, yet it is uncertain who will take the initiative on such a major undertaking. As President-elect Trump enters office, he does so without a defined higher education agenda and a Secretary of Education nominee from the K-12 policy arena. There will be new leadership on the House committee covering education, while its Senate counterpart is likely to be focused initially on healthcare issues in 2017. Common-sense changes in federal higher education policy enjoy a broad base of support, but their enactment remains far from certain as the political deck of cards is shuffled in Washington.
The Obama administration’s executive actions improved the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but still must be made permanent and built upon to better serve students; for example, the I.R.S Data Retrieval Tool allows applicants to automatically fill a FAFSA with previously submitted tax data, but remains inaccessible to many due to tax-filing status. Pell Grants provide need-based financial support to millions of low-income students that otherwise might not be able to afford college, but current awards cover the lowest share of the cost of attending a 4-year public university in 40 years. Declining grants and state funding have led to rising costs for students, requiring many to turn to loans to make up the balance. Too often borrowers sign private student loans, missing more favorable terms in federal loans. Even if students do maximize federal loan opportunities, it remains difficult to select and re-enroll under income-based repayment plans that can make monthly payments more manageable. Low-cost, high-impact policy remedies to these issues can immediately start easing the financial aid process for students and reducing the burden of loans on families, which is why it is important that our nation’s top leaders continue to support them.
We must move leaders to act now on changes that could be life changing for our students and our economy. Limited finances should not be the barrier between a talented student and their college dream, nor should it keep our economy from reaching its full potential. Our students, our economy, and our democracy simply cannot wait for elected officials to stumble upon the value of a college degree.
Interested in adding your voice to our Coalition to Keep College Affordable? Learn more about our policy agenda here and sign a postcard to your Member of Congress urging them to #KeepCollegeAffordable! View Photos from our D.C. trip here.