Last month, House Democrats introduced their proposal to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, dubbed the Aim Higher Act. Compared to the House GOP’s PROSPER Act revealed last fall, the bill makes much needed positive adjustments to financial aid, student supports, and loan repayment that would improve the lives and experiences of millions of college students. However, solving the problems facing the current system requires building upon this proposal with even bolder and more comprehensive solutions. It’s clear students, and the public at large, support those solutions, and as the nation’s largest research and advocacy nonprofit dedicated to young adults, we ask our elected officials to support them too.
Earlier this year, Young Invincibles conducted surveys and roundtables with students and members of YI’s Youth Advisory Boards, asking them about their policy priorities for higher education reform. Fusing their responses with our own policy expertise, we published A Vote for Higher Education, a platform of policies to bring our higher education system into the 21st century. This platform prioritized a guaranteed debt-free path to a four-year degree, as well as enfranchising undocumented young people into our higher education system. Solutions to these problems aren’t pie-in-the-sky concepts; they have legislative language ready to go and have already been introduced in Congress.
The Aim Higher Act calls for a $500 increase to the maximum Pell grant award for low-income students. This is much needed, as the purchasing power for Pell has eroded over time. However, this $500 increase would mean the maximum Pell award would still cover less than a third of the cost of attendance at a public four-year college, and 14 percent at private nonprofit institutions. That’s an increase of only 2 points and 1 point, respectively.
The Aim Higher Act does call for free tuition at community colleges. However tuition at two-year institutions accounts for only 20 percent of the full cost of attendance, so providing free tuition still leaves students stuck with the majority of the bill.
In contrast, the Debt-Free College Act of 2018 would guarantee millions of students could attend college, including public four-year institutions, without taking on debt. The plan would prioritize covering the tuition and cost of attendance of low-income students, and expand over time that debt free guarantee to all students. By employing a federal state-partnership model, this bill also accounts for varying prices from state to state. In our current system, students are subject to this variation based on where they are born and raised. Unfortunately, this means that the Pell Grant in high price states, like Illinois, is even less effective than in other states. Students are adamant in their support for debt-free college, and our legislators should pay attention.
According to the bill’s summary, the Aim Higher Act would allow undocumented students eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) to access federal student aid. Using the eligibility criteria established by the DACA program, an estimated 1.3 million undocumented young people currently qualify for DACA and thus would qualify for Title IV aid under the Aim Higher Act. But there are more than 3 million DREAMers — childhood arrivals who grew up in the United States and are now of, or near, college age — meaning that even with the progress made by Aim Higher more than 50 percent of the nation’s DREAMer population would still be unable to access financial aid to pursue higher education. Given the uncertainty of the DACA program’s future under this administration, and the failed attempts in both the House and Senate to pass legislation to address the crisis caused by President Trump’s recission of the program, it’s important that no young person who wants to pursue higher education is left behind, regardless of immigration status. This bill should reflect that by expanding its eligibility definition to include the full DREAMer population.
Almost all of the students we spoke with expressed strong support for policies that advance the equity mission of higher education to close access and success gaps among racial and ethnic groups. Burdening DREAMers’ ability to access affordable higher education will exacerbate those gaps. More broadly, nearly 9 out of 10 Americans support allowing DREAMers to stay in America, and various bills already exist to create a path to citizenship for DREAMers which would allow people with the skills and degrees earned through more accessible higher education to stay and thrive in the U.S. workforce.
To be clear, we commend the sponsors of the Aim Higher Act for drafting such a comprehensive and thorough piece of legislation. When compared to the PROSPER Act, which appears to be written for the higher education system of the past, Aim Higher acknowledges how students and their needs have changed in the last decade. We urge them to build off their proposal and aim even higher, incorporating the bold solutions needed to move America forward.