Sending your child to college is a daunting process — even for someone who has spent decades working alongside workforce and education systems.
I’ve spent more than a dozen years at the U.S. Department of Labor and another dozen leading Jobs for the Future, or JFF. But as I’ve helped my daughter, a rising senior in high school, navigate the college search process, I am still struck by both the exorbitant price tags of attending college and the alarming lack of transparency around the value of that education.
Policymakers are attempting to mitigate these costs. In June, House and Senate Democrats reintroduced a bill that would double the federal Pell Grant. This was a campaign promise of President Joe Biden’s, and it’s one he has continued to champion, supported by a unified front of education and workforce organizations.
While JFF is part of the broad coalition supporting legislation that would make this change, making good on the promise of equitable education for all goes far beyond addressing the rising price of tuition and Pell’s failure to keep pace. Affordability, it turns out, is just one side of the Rubik’s Cube.
We must also work to address the opportunity costs of attending college. The true price of higher education runs much deeper than tuition. It’s the time students take off work, the difficult balancing act of raising a family while enrolled and the many other sacrifices learners make to stay on the path to a degree. It’s also the risk inherent in making such a great investment, with millions of Americans struggling with college debt despite never having earned a degree.
Building a more equitable future hinges on expanding access not only to colleges and universities but also to the many lower-cost training programs that are now creating on-ramps to good jobs. We must provide every student with higher-quality navigational support as they look for and embark on the pathway that is right for them.
And we must take a hard look at the less-examined reasons why the journey to postsecondary completion has become so costly to so many learners. The hard truth is that even if we were to erase the financial burden of college overnight, millions of students would still be poorly served by institutions that have not yet adapted to the realities of today’s students.
Doubling Pell is a necessary step, but it is insufficient for addressing the myriad challenges facing first-generation students, students from low-income backgrounds, working parents, students of color and the many others who, collectively, represent the new majority of postsecondary learners.
The true price of higher education runs much deeper than tuition.
Indeed, barely half of the students at four-year universities who receive Pell Grants graduate within six years. And more than 30 percent of students from low-income backgrounds who need a Pell Grant can’t get one.
Students in default of federal student loans, for example, are ineligible for Pell. About one in four borrowers now default on student loans within five years; those from low-income backgrounds are more likely to default. This creates a challenge for addressing the financial needs of learners most disadvantaged by our system, including those who take more circuitous routes to a degree.
Meanwhile, students looking to take advantage of a growing number of short-term training programs are also shut out of Pell because of policies informed by an antiquated understanding of what higher education is.
These bad policies reflect a system struggling to keep up with the changing needs of today’s students. Institutions and the policies which govern them are still rooted in a traditional four-years-and-done approach to postsecondary education that fails to reflect the realities of a booming population of lifelong learners.
With millions of displaced workers looking to gain new skills due to the pandemic’s devastating impact on our workforce, and worker shortages plaguing many industries, the need to transform higher education is all the more urgent. We must realign the goals of postsecondary education with the aspirations and values of the new majority of learners.
Pell should be expanded to include short-term training programs — but not without developing a greater understanding of the outcomes of these programs so we can ensure that funding only flows to programs that deliver on their promises to students.
Institutions and employers should reimagine how we pay for postsecondary education and skills development and how we can provide better support to help aspiring learners succeed. Colleges and universities must double down on consumer-centered delivery, tailoring learning opportunities around the busy schedules of working students.
We must also develop a career navigation system so that students and their families can make better sense of the rapidly expanding number of credentials and other pathways available to them. Career services should take center stage from the first day of class — or even earlier.
Deeper, vertical alignment between K-12 schools and the higher education system can provide students with more intentional, guided pathways that break down traditional barriers between high schools, colleges and careers.
As a mother now personally navigating the costs of higher education with her daughter, I fully understand why college leaders and policymakers are so laser-focused on the financial barriers standing between students and greater access to higher education.
But there is much more work to do in ensuring postsecondary education is not only affordable but of real value to every learner. Doubling Pell is only the beginning.
Maria Flynn is president and CEO of JFF, a national nonprofit that drives transformation in the American workforce and education systems.
This story about doubling pell grants was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.