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Three Surprisingly Simple Ways to Make College More Affordable

By Sarah Lovenheim

President Obama is expected to kick off the year this week with an event highlighting legislative proposals and executive actions tied to higher education. There’s perhaps no more important issue for the country to focus on. With college tuition and student loan debt skyrocketing over the past decade, college is still out-of-reach for too many young people. Getting a degree is just about the most important thing Millennials can do to climb the economic ladder.

But making college more accessible – and affordable – actually isn’t that difficult. Here are three fairly simple things Congress and the President could do to make the dream of higher education a reality for more Americans.


1) Greater investment in the Pell grant – At the end of 2014, Congress did something really bad for the nation’s low-income students. It slashed funding for the Pell grant program – which awards nine million low-income students grant money — by $303 million, as part of a massive spending package to keep the federal government running.

Any cuts this year to the Pell program could create a significant shortfall that could hit as soon as 2016, meaning Congress would need to find additional dollars elsewhere to fund the program. This would come on top of an already worrisome decline in the value of the Pell grant program. While the number of students benefiting has increased in recent years, the grant covers just one-third the cost of college today. In 1980, it used to cover half the cost!

With tuition and student loan debt on the rise, government should do everything it can to boost investment in the Pell grant program in 2015. Employment and earnings data show college is a valuable investment, particularly for young people from underserved communities.

2) Simplify the federal financial aid process – Applying for financial aid is way too complicated. In July, we surveyed Millennials about their experience applying for financial aid, and many described the process as “confusing” and “complex.” The financial aid application form — called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA for short — has about 100 questions more than it needs to. Many questions have nothing to do with financial aid.

In fact, forty percent of students do not even complete the form – either because it’s too complicated, or they assume they’re ineligible for financial aid in the first place. But the truth is that nearly half of these applicants would qualify for aid if they just applied.

We propose a FAFSA form condensed into two index card size questions: “what is your annual income, and how big is your family?” Studies show that focusing the application on information from federal income tax forms would have little bearing on how aid gets distributed, according to the College Board. Updating the financial aid process to give more young people a shot at affording college should be a no-brainer.

3) Federal Work Study program reform — We’d like to see Congress revise its funding formula to support the schools that enroll the greatest number of low-income students.

The Federal Work Study program that allows low-income students defer college costs by working while in school relies on a funding formula that has not been updated in more than 20 years. It often favors costly private schools at the expense of public schools that admit greater numbers of low-income students. In many cases, students from families making over $100,000 receive higher average awards than those from families making less than $40,000.

Nearly 80 percent of employers expect real-world experiences from college graduates. But our higher education system isn’t meeting this need, especially for low-income students.

If the President would encourage Congress and the country to take these steps and more, he would be one step closer to achieving his goal of “guaranteeing every child access to a world class education” – and our generation would be better set up for the workforce and to contribute to the greater economy.