For the first time in 11 years, members of both political parties have signaled that they are ready to come to the table and reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), the signature law that guides America’s higher education system. This is important, because our higher education system is as out of date as our conception of a college student. The stereotype of a freshman college student – 18 years old, middle class, fresh out of high school, on a sprawling quad – is rarer than ever before. More than ever, students are older than 25, they’re people of color, they’re student parents, they have significant financial responsibilities outside of school. And most of them are women. At a time when more degrees will be needed to fill the jobs of tomorrow and build financial security, making higher education accessible and affordable for women of all backgrounds is not only a clear economic imperative, it is an urgent women’s issue.
Women now outpace men in college enrollment and degree attainment. And while more women with degrees and credentials is cause for celebration, when we dig deeper into those numbers new concerns arise. More degrees means more debt. Women currently hold nearly two thirds of the outstanding $1.5 trillion in federal student loan debt, and they are repaying that debt more slowly than their male counterparts. When women graduate, they enter a workforce that leaves even highly educated women behind. At the bachelor’s level women tend to hold degrees that lead to lower paying jobs, and this disparity is particularly severe for women of color. Non-degree credentials meant to provide quick skills building for job growth are increasingly popular and, while men and women tend to earn these at similar rates, women tend to attain certifications for jobs in that are lower paying and that offer fewer opportunities for long term advancement than men.
Here’s the reality: women hold more degrees, more debt, and graduate into a persistent wage gap that worsens for women of color. With HEA reauthorization on the table, we need to take this opportunity to create a higher education system that truly serves today’s students, today’s women.
Simplifying the FAFSA, the entryway to student financial aid, is an important first step towards getting women the aid they need to pursue an education. Changes like getting rid of duplicative questions, clarifying paperwork needs for independent students, and ensuring that students can report both assets and financial hardship could be revolutionary for aspiring students. Relatedly, increasing the maximum Pell Grant award to cover more of the total cost of college including housing, food, and child care is a popular, bipartisan, and multi-generational friendly proposal to get more money in the hands of the students who need it the most.
One in four students have children or other dependents. These responsibilities skew female: in the 2011-2012 school year almost one third of all female college students had a child or dependent compared to one sixth of their male peers, with those proportions increasing to almost 50% for black women. We know that on campus child care dramatically increases the likelihood of completion and HEA reauthorization provides an opportunity to invest in CCAMPIS, the only federal program that helps schools provide quality, affordable child care on-campus. This program advances success for two generations at once, so the HEA debate around CCAMPIS shouldn’t be DO we expand the program but rather by how much.
We also know that access and affordability means much more than the cost of tuition and books for today’s students. Women are more likely to take on debt than their male counterparts to make up the difference not just of college costs, but of the costs of living while pursuing their degrees. Women need help affording basic needs while in college, often not only for themselves, without being forced into debt. Wrap around services — like help affording transportation, assistance in signing up for benefits like SNAP and Medicaid, tutoring and advisory supports that help students stay on track to graduation, and emergency financial assistance to make sure that one emergency isn’t the difference between a bad day and debt with no degree — are intentional and necessary interventions that should be prioritized in this HEA reauthorization to help students graduate and meet basic needs without taking on more debt.
For students, after the joy of graduation comes the reality of repayment. Women are paying off their huge share of the $1.5 trillion in student loan debt at slower rates than their male counterparts resulting in more interest over time and higher overall balances. The pace of repayment is particularly slow for young women of color, an issue exacerbated by the pay gap being skewed most egregiously against black and Latinx women. HEA reauthorization can help mitigate the workforce realities that young women graduate into by making Income Based Repayment more borrower-friendly and easier to access and understand, so that young women pay off their student loan balances at a pace they can afford while staying on a path to financial stability and avoiding default.
We must also demand quality from programs that attract young women with promises of quick returns. By some estimates, women make up more than three quarters of students enrolled in for profit colleges, most of them being women of color. These schools say they offer quicker and easier pathways to high earnings to non-traditional students, but often don’t deliver, leaving students with mountains of debt and no way to repay. HEA reauthorization should codify quality controls that hold schools accountable to the promises they make to our most vulnerable students.
Finally, anyone who wants to see women succeed in college must prioritize their safety on campus. Title IX has been a subject of debate since its inception in 1972. HEA is an opportunity to implement statutory guidelines that will help schools ensure that female students on campus don’t have to live with the fear that they may be just as likely to graduate as they are to experience some form of sexual misconduct or assault on campus.
Women are driving our economy forward and they need degrees to do it. A successful HEA will recognize that when we talk about “today’s students” we are talking about women of color, women living in poverty, women who are parents, women who are returning students, and more. This is a once in a decade opportunity to create a higher education system that serves today’s women, today’s scholars. Let’s pass a student-friendly HEA, for all women.