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Examining the Cost of College and Ways to Bolster Completion

Today, the Committee on Education and Labor convened a bipartisan hearing to examine the high cost of college and ways to enact student-centered reforms.

During the hearing, witness testimony made it clear that the high cost of college does not exist in a vacuum. In order to drive downward pressure on rising tuition expenses, it’s important to analyze how college costs are interconnected to other issues in postsecondary education.

“Any discussion of college affordability must involve serious questions about institutional accountability. I hope we’ll hear more about that today, and I hope we’ll all have the courage to confront those who seek to maintain the status quo, at the expense of students, for their own benefit,” Republican Leader Virginia Foxx (R-NC) said in her opening statement.

Dr. Beth Akers, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, testified that greater transparency on institutional and program performance can help students determine the value of a degree.

“[S]tudents need information on how institutions and programs of study are performing. They also need more clear information on costs. The introduction of the College Scorecard during the Obama administration was a tremendous step forward. We should continue these efforts by further refining the information that is available to students,” Dr. Akers said.

States also play an important role in making public institutions more affordable. Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar, Interim Chancellor of Western Carolina University, described North Carolina’s “NC Promise,” a state-level program to keep costs reasonable for postsecondary students.

“NC Promise is unique compared to most of the ‘free college’ programs in that it is a first-dollar scholarship; that means the tuition price comes down before any other financial aid is awarded. Pell Grants, state scholarships, and institutional aid go a lot further than they used to under NC Promise,” Dr. Morrison-Shetlar said. “At Western, the program allows an in-state student who finishes their degree in 4-years to save approximately $12,000, an amount nearly equivalent to the total cost of attendance for one full academic year.”

In addition to finding ways to make college more affordable and accessible, it’s essential to place equal weight on the importance of completion. If a student with outstanding student loans attends a university but leaves without a degree, their jobs and earnings prospects are statistically worse than if they’d never attended college in the first place.

“Students who do not complete college earn only slightly more than their counterparts with high school diplomas. This feature of the college earnings boost puts college dropouts in a particularly bad position: these students hold non-dischargeable debt and have poor prospects for paying off the debt . . . The true student debt crisis is concentrated among those borrowers who did not obtain the degree. Addressing non-completion should be a top priority for future research and policy, and will allow us to provide real solutions to the most vulnerable college-attenders,” Dr. Douglas Webber of Temple University explained.

Future conversations about college affordability must include an emphasis on holding institutions accountable for students’ success.

“We’ve had a lot of hearings on postsecondary education over the years. As time goes on, and as the statistics add up, it’s becoming clear that none of the issues stand alone. Mr. Chairman, you and I share a love for methodical processes and a topical approach makes sense to many, but as our witnesses have shown us today, each topic leads directly to another,” Republican Leader Foxx said in her closing statement. “This is why this Committee must focus on the following touchstones for reform: strengthening innovation and completion, modernizing federal student aid, and promoting student opportunities.”


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