[The New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program today released a comprehensive package of policy proposals that would provide an overhaul of federal financial aid. The report, Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid, calls for specific changes to grants, loans, tax benefits, college outreach programs and federal regulations to provide more direct aid to the lowest-income students, while strengthening accountability for institutions of higher education to ensure that more students are able to earn affordable, high-quality credentials. In today's post, we make our case for why student aid reform is needed.]
When Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell helped create the college student aid program that would become his legacy, American higher education looked very different than it does today. In 1972, the typical college student paid the equivalent of $526 per year in tuition and fees, in today’s dollars, to attend a public university in-state. Private college tuition was often affordable, and undergraduate borrowing was all but unheard-of. There were no “for-profit” colleges as we know them now. The large majority of all public support for higher education came in the form of direct appropriations to colleges and universities from states.
The world has changed since then. Profound shifts in the structure of the global economy have put a premium on high-skill jobs that require advanced credentials while many well-paying blue-collar jobs have disappeared. Students have flooded onto college campuses, in America and, increasingly, around the world. At the same time, colleges and universities began a decades-long campaign in the early 1980s of constant price increases that continues, unabated, today. This happened in part because states, eager to cut taxes and facing rising costs for health care and public safety, reduced the portion of their budgets dedicated to higher education. At the same time, colleges competing for students and prestige ramped up spending year after year.