Spotlight Exclusives

Access Isn۪t EnoughThe Need to Insure Low-Income Students

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The President of the United States has placed increasing the percentage of Americans with college degrees on his short list of important goals. But too many commentators, academics, and journalists are using current economic pressures to discourage students particularly those from low-income backgrounds from investing in themselves.


This is the wrong approach. A postsecondary education is the right answer for many low-income Americans, but we have to provide better protection for those for whom the investment does not pay off. And we have to provide better information and support to help people make good choices about what to study, where to study, and how to finance their education.


It is not difficult to find stories about individual unemployed college graduates, about people mired in education debt, or about the poor prospects of students who begin college with inadequate academic preparation and never earn useful credentials.


These stories are real and they are painful, but they are not representative. They are too frequently grounded in ideology and anecdote rather than evidence. They are meant to discourage other people۪s children from going to college.


If these arguments prevailed, they would have the effect intended or not of saving the more privileged members of society from having to subsidize those from less fortunate circumstances to allow them the opportunity for social mobility.


The benefits of a college education are both financial and non-financial. They accrue both to students themselves and to society as a whole. The earnings gaps among people with different levels of education have not stopped growing. The unemployment rate for four-year college graduates is consistently about half the unemployment rate for high school graduates.


Yet questions about whether or not it is worth going to college and whether or not it is appropriate to encourage young people who are on the fence about continuing their education after high school have intensified. 


It is both reasonable and constructive to ask whether and for whom the expense of postsecondary education is a good investment, since it is a investment that is far from risk-free.


Students enter their programs with different probabilities of success. Too many students make choices that reduce their chances of success, usually because they have inadequate information. But many students succeed despite daunting hurdles and most are better off over their lifetimes both financially and otherwise than they would have been had they not invested in themselves.

The first step is generous grant aid, which is vital both for making postsecondary education financially accessible to low-income students and for making them aware that college is within their reach. But insurance against the possibility that education will not pay off as well as expected is also necessary.


The new Income-Based Repayment Plan for federal student loans is an important move in this direction. Students can now be assured that they will not have to devote more than a relatively low percentage of their incomes to repaying their federal loans. If their incomes are insufficient, their debt will eventually be forgiven.


This program, however, needs to be strengthened to further diminish both the number of students whose debt creates real problems and to increase the willingness of students from low-income backgrounds to take the risk of investing in college.


The very real problem of lower completion rates for students from low-income and first generation backgrounds has led some observers to the unwarranted conclusion that people who do not have strong academic preparation, who do not have the required financial resources, or who are unfamiliar with the expectations and requirements of colleges and universities should not undertake postsecondary education. 


Research tells us otherwise. Numerous economic analyses indicate that the students who, because of their demographic characteristics and academic experiences, are least likely to go to college stand to benefit most from a postsecondary degree or certificate. 


The solution is not to advise students to forgo college because they might not graduate. It is to provide better information and advice and more generous financial support to increase their chances of success. And, of primary importance, all students need and deserve higher quality academic preparation before they reach the college decision stage.


It is also important not to discount the value of college experience even for those students who do not complete credentials. Although the payoff for earning a college credential is highest, the median return to each additional year of postsecondary schooling is significant.


Solid evidence indicates that our main focus should be on providing opportunities for postsecondary preparation and access and on supporting more students in making choices that will allow them to maximize their postsecondary education success.


Different paths are appropriate for different individuals. Our challenge is to make the most promising paths readily available to students from all backgrounds. We will all be better off if we continue to make progress in this direction.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Sandy Baum is an Independent Higher Education Policy Analyst and Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

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