“Higher Education Feels Out of Reach”: White House Hosts Summit on College Affordability

WHCollegeOpportunityFor low-income students, the pathway toward higher education is especially hard to navigate. Many of them cannot afford college due to sky-high tuition rates and insufficient Pell Grants, which now only cover a small fraction of the costs. Unlike their more affluent peers, they have limited resources that leave them unprepared for college-level course work. This results in an increasing number of students who do not graduate, according to speakers at a White House summit on higher education.

Last week, NEA student leaders, including chair of the NEA Student program Chelsey Herrig, attended the White House’s College Opportunity Day of Action. At the summit, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and hundreds of education leaders discussed the need to increase graduation rates and make college more accessible for low-income students in particular.

“For a lot of working families, for a lot of middle class kids, a lot of folks who are trying to join that middle class, higher education increasingly feels out of reach,” Obama said. “…Too many students who take the crucial step of enrolling in college don’t actually finish, which means they leave with the burden of debt, without the earnings and job benefits of a degree. So we’ve got to change that.”

NEA’s “Degrees, Not Debt” campaign centers on the notion that college must be affordable to all students, regardless of family background or income. As Americans face $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, Pell Grants need to be increased for low-income students and states need to restore much-needed funding to public higher education.

“For so many, the financial barrier, the prospect of wading through decades of debt and being unsure of what awaits them on the other side of college, in terms of job market, are keeping students from working toward their dreams,” said Herring.

Future educators are even considering alternative professions due to the student loan crisis. Teaching salaries may look slim compared to professions whose starting salary may be double what teachers would earn.

The Obama Administration will contribute millions so that colleges, nonprofits and K-16 partnerships will be able to successfully help low-income students – from increasing the number of STEM graduates to making school counselors more accessible.

Chelsey Herrig

Chelsey Herrig

Currently, as the First Lady pointed out, there is only one counselor for every 471 students, a burden for first-generation college students who may need more guidance when they apply for schools.

“As the college presidents here all know, the result is that colleges aren’t always getting all of the very best students,” Michelle Obama explained. “They’re getting the students who can best afford to succeed in the system. And we are leaving behind so many bright, hungry, promise-filled kids.”

While in office, Obama has increased Pell Grants by $1,000 per year and allowed student loan payments to account for 10 percent of a student’s monthly income. Still, economic status remains a key factor in determining whether or not a student will attain a degree.

According to Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, 54 percent of high-income students have a bachelor’s degree by age 25, compared to 10 percent who come from low-income backgrounds.

It’s evident that students are more successful when their colleges offer adequately funded Pell Grants. At Georgia State University, for instance, over 50 percent of incoming freshman are eligible for Pell Grants.

“At Georgia State they have a fantastic outcome for African American students in the sense that very, very high Pell – well above 50 percent – Pell for their incoming students, but there’s no differentiation in outcomes, based on family background whatsoever,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University. “In our particular case we have tremendous diversity, socioeconomic diversity, and at scale,” adding that ASU hasn’t innovated with other universities, which could help public research universities achieve four goals, including lowering the costs of college and increasing the number of graduates from diverse backgrounds.

In addition to better communication between universities, Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, offered that colleges should also support K-12 schools by finding ways to get students past developmental math and reading courses.

“We would increase substantially the number of graduates if we can get those students from low income backgrounds and minority groups beyond the developmental work (and) prepared for college level work,” he said.