The Federal Role in Financing 21st-Century Higher Education: Effectiveness, Issues, and Alternatives
For the United States to remain competitive in the world market, 60 percent of new entrants into the workforce by 2025 would have to possess a college degree or certificate of postsecondary training. Currently, that number is only about 40 percent. Because of demographic changes, it is also true that a large chunk of that 20 percent gap consist of first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students, such as minorities, who in decades past did not attend higher education in large numbers. State and federal policies can work in unison to increase higher education affordability, access, and attainment for these students, and money is particularly important. Financing mechanisms that keep these students and their families from being saddled with debt must be available, and federal funding goes a long way toward this end. In fact, grants and loans provide the majority of financing for most students, although grants appear to be more effective than loans at creating pathways and removing barriers to access for students. Nevertheless, loans play a major role when students—low-income students in particular—select a college or university. Finances are not the only obstacle preventing first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students from going to college, however: The complexity of the application process, lack of familiarity with colleges and universities, and limited experience with finances are all significant barriers to access. The very social and economic issues facing first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students, arising from structural, social inequities, often inhibit these students’ ability to access higher education. Nontraditional students, such as veterans taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and older students with dependents, may face similar challenges.