WASHINGTON — Higher education experts on Thursday gave a Senate committee their suggestions for improving college affordability in the hopes those ideas could be adopted on a national level.
During a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, the panel discussed the efforts they had made in their respective institutions that, they said, have bucked the national trend of ever-growing financial barriers to college, especially for low-income families.
“College is increasingly out of reach for students from working families, and our nation is losing ground in having a well-educated workforce that can compete in the global economy,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the committee chairman, said in his opening remarks.
Donald Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education, acknowledged that the rapid rise in college costs affects all families, as tuition prices have increased three times faster than the median family income in the nation.
At Thursday’s hearing, however, Heller emphasized the importance of focusing on funding low- and middle-income families, and of clarifying the financial aid process.
Heller proposed the implementation of a federal program that targets eighth-grade students who eventually could be eligible for a federal Pell Grant, so that college is on their radar at an earlier stage.
The Pell Grant targets low-income families and does not need to be repaid like a loan. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., commended the suggestion, proposing that Congress consider Heller’s plan.
Before students can benefit from financial aid, Heller said, the system needs to be streamlined.
“The world of higher education finance is a complex and mysterious place, particularly for those low- and moderate-income students,” he said.
Steven Leath, president of Iowa State University, held up the school’s financial services department as an example. At Iowa State, counselors offer individual sessions for students, as well as financial literacy classes, he said.
“In some ways when we started these programs they almost seemed like they were remedial,” Leath said. “If they came better prepared we would be delighted.”
For students who are able to navigate the financial aid system, a Pell Grant can cover the cost of their first two years at a community college, which comes in at about $6,000 to $10,000, said Thomas Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana.
Given the lower tuition at community colleges, forging a strong relationship between these institutions and four-year colleges could be a good way to get more bang for your buck, Snyder said.
Ivy Tech Community College also has adopted distance and online learning, which Snyder said allowed the school to keep pace with a 45 percent increase in enrollment during the past four years.
More and more students are signing up for an online education, testified Carol Twigg, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on education and technology.
But Leath said that though online education is a good thing, he thinks that it is important to maintain quality standards.
Leath suggested a combination of on-campus and online learning.
“There are many other experiences that come with living on campuses, so we’ve got to get that blend right,” he said.
Leath was not the only person to caution a rush to action. Officials at Thursday’s hearing agreed that higher education institutions are not facing an easy task.
Even the audience members reached a near consensus when Merkley asked those attending the hearing whether they had student debt and were concerned about it. Nearly the entire audience raised their hands.
Within the next two weeks the committee will release a report on the state of higher education its staff compiled over two years, Harkin said.
©2012 McClatchy Washington Bureau