Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Why we still miss mark on college affordability

A striking paragraph in the Lexington Herald Leader's college affordability story today deserves clarification:
"The 40 percent of Kentucky families who earn the least must use 39 percent of their income to attend a 4-year college, up from 33 percent in 2004, the report found. And that's after accounting for financial aid, which is increasingly being used to lure high-achieving students who boost a school's reputation, but who don't need help to go to college."

The 39% figure is highly misleading. It includes food and lodging expenses. Those would have to be incurred whether the student chooses to live on campus and overpay for necessities or not. The fact that poor families are choosing to pay luxury prices for necessary services is more indicative of the fact that federally-insured student loans are readily available than the inaccurate picture that poor families face living on 61% of their income in order to send a child to college.

Solutions are readily available. We already incentivize students to attend community colleges by allowing them to continue paying the lower tuition rates at universities when they transfer after earning a two-year degree. This is not well-publicized. It should be.

If more students stayed at home with their parents and took courses online through, they would save substantially as well.

The article's criticism that too much financial aid is being awarded to students "who don't need help to go to college" is off-base also. Raising academic standards in our public colleges is the only way to approach long-term success. Doling out too much financial aid strictly on the basis of financial need and then encouraging overspending for services is at the heart of this problem. Attempting to address college affordability without naming the actual culprits will continue to frustrate our efforts to improve the situation.