It seems to me that most people define “affordable college” as little or no out-of-pocket cost.
Some define it as low/reasonable debt.
Both positions focus, reasonably, on the student/family perspective of paying for college. College affordability is more than that though, it is also a question of what is affordable for the institution, the local/state government, and the federal government. For government, the affordability question is rarely addressed directly. Most often it is addressed as “what do we have to spend on higher education this year,” often ignoring any funding models in place.
One of the fundamental problems we have is that we simply have not sat down and decided who shall pay how much.
These are the questions that need to be asked and answered:
- Should students and families have a role in paying for public higher education? If so, to what degree?
- Should the federal government have a role in financial support of public higher education? If so, to what degree?
- Should the federal government have a role in financial support of private higher education (nonprofit or for-profit)? If so, to what degree?
- Should the state governments have a role in financial support of private higher education (nonprofit or for-profit)? If so, to what degree?
- Should publicly-financed debt have a role in supporting students in higher education? If so, to what degree?
Some will argue we have already answered the “should” questions, which is true enough, but we certainly have not effectively answered the questions of degree. In the states, despite all manner of good intentions, public higher education funding is quick to be cut because institutions can increase tuition. The same has been true for grant support to students attending private institutions. So I say we should address these questions as if they are new.
One thing beyond doubt is that any institution is unaffordable for any student if the student can’t graduate. The obstacles to graduation go well beyond student preparation and include what it costs to live and the fact that many students are not 18-22 year-olds without family responsibilities.
There is also the aspect of the student’s responsibility to do the work. This is an issue that allows policy-makers to treat postsecondary education as something different. For the very large part, college students are legal adults. This allows policy-makers to assume that students should pay to go to college. However, policy-makers conveniently ignore the fact the students are adults and make their own choices when they choose to hold institutions accountable for graduation rates.
We really need to think about these issues. Higher education is no longer only for the second sons of the elite, or even their first sons. It is for everyone. That is why so many options for study and credentials exist and thus we need to rethink what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we should pay for it.
The current hodgepodge of funding streams and policies do little more than disguise the cost of education to the student and their family. It also seems to do little to support student success.
We can do better.