“Who thinks college is affordable?”
Secretary Duncan and new Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell posed that question to a packed room of college students and freshly-minted graduates at a recent town hall on college costs and access.
Almost no one raised a hand.
A college education is still the best investment students can make in their future. It is also a critical investment that we can make as a nation. But right now, this important rung on the ladder to opportunity is slipping out of reach for many low- and middle-income families in America.
That’s something President Obama is determined to change. Since taking office, the President has made key investments in education and advanced an ambitious agenda to combat rising college costs; to make college more affordable; to increase quality; and to improve educational outcomes. On June 9, 2014, the President signed a Presidential Memorandum that will allow an additional 5 million borrowers with federal student loans to cap their monthly payments at just 10 percent of their income.
But during the town hall meeting, the feeling in the room was clear: this country needs to do so much more, to ensure that students – regardless of their circumstances – have the information they need to make good choices and the financial support to pay for and complete their education.
The town hall was part of a series of events to encourage conversations and gain insights from the people most directly affected by the rising costs of college. Secretary Duncan and Under Secretary Mitchell were there with one purpose: to hear from students. This was an opportunity to listen to students’ stories, needs, and ideas.
One student panelist, Jonathan, said, “My mom always told me I could go to my dream college. Then when we started to look at the cost, we had to slow down and think again. It’s not something parents want to have to say: ‘Let’s see what we can afford. Let’s pick something lower on your list.”
Jonathan saved on expenses for his family by spending his freshman year at a lower-cost college before transferring to that dream school, Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Wendy, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania and daughter of immigrant parents, shared her mother’s response when she was asked if the family was saving money for Wendy’s college education. She quoted her mother, “Are you kidding me? I’ve been trying to survive in this country. You have to figure it out.”
Student after student took the microphone, eager to share experiences and challenges, and offer ideas about how the federal government, states, and individual colleges and universities could help ease the financial aid process for students and families. Student participants attended institutions coast-to-coast—from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, to the University of California at Berkeley.
Several students recommended community college as a strong option for securing the first two years of a 4-year degree at a reasonable cost. One explained, “I feel like there is a stigma about promoting community colleges; [but] I have been able to stay debt free until my senior year.” Still many others raised their hands when asked if they were working their way through school. Several students described the challenge of juggling studies and the need to keep their grades high with the demand to work, in order to keep their loan balances down. Others spoke about the realities of being first-generation Americans, with parents who value a college education, but who encounter cultural taboos about borrowing money to pay for it. Still others spoke about having parents who attended college abroad and were unsure about helping their kids navigate the U.S. higher education system.
The consistent message at the town hall was that with better information, students and families can make informed decisions about higher education, manage their loans and finances wisely, and not have to defer their dreams.
“I want to be clear,” Under Secretary Mitchell told the room of promising young people, “the balance has shifted in ways that are not fair to students and families. We need to be guided by righting that balance on the side of students.”
Robert Gomez is the director of higher education outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.