Higher education throughout the country needs to become more accessible. American higher education has often been too costly, lacking in quality, or unequal when it comes to admissions. These factors have since been exacerbated by the effects of the global pandemic.
Accessibility has been a long-standing issue that the most affordable colleges, for instance, have been attempting to address. However, the current circumstances also present vast opportunities for reforms. Congress, in particular, should be called to action in hopes of improving the accessibility for higher education.
The looming threats of mass unemployment and economic decline brought by the global pandemic only serve to make higher education less accessible for many people. The costs of admissions and amounts of student debt have only been rising, even in the midst of a crisis.
While the Biden Administration can take executive actions to help ease these problems, it still falls upon Congress to fundamentally fix the system through major reforms. Moreover, the current administration has already touched on some of these concerns in The American Jobs Plan. Regardless, there are certain actions that Congress should heavily consider to make higher education more accessible for all.
Necessary Relief Measures
Enrollments for higher education took a steep decline in the previous year, particularly in public and community colleges across the country. While top colleges and universities presented an increase in applications and admissions, this does not necessarily show the entire picture.
The financial challenges brought about by the global pandemic are expected to worsen state budget contracts. Colleges anticipate needing an additional $97 billion to cover losses, on top of the two rounds of relief Congress has already provided. It’s also important for lawmakers to set aside funding specifically for public institutions.
Student loan debt is another rampant issue that inhibits access to higher education across the country. As a matter of fact, it’s been observed that almost 30% of borrowers default on their student loans, especially for the most economically vulnerable groups.
The increasing costs to students are primarily due to the declining investments in public colleges. Congress should work to make public colleges debt-free. This can be achieved by significantly increasing the maximum Pell Grant for low-income students. Renewing the investments in public higher education is also necessary, which can be done in conjunction with the federal government.
Burdens of Student Loans
In terms of student loan debts, Congress should also consider the economic burden that borrowers continue to face. While the Biden administration has extended the pause on student loan payments and collections, Congress should broaden the reach to include all federal loan holders.
Congress should reform the student loan repayment system, particularly in income-driven repayment (IDR) plans. Essentially, it could simplify the number of IDR plans into one that is accessible to all borrowers regardless of income, just as generous as existing options, and virtually eliminates the tax burden for debt forgiveness.
Aside from affordability, improving institutional quality is also another significant factor for accessibility. The relevance of this issue is also tied to building the capacity of public higher education to address equity. It is vital to reduce the disparity between top colleges and public colleges.
Congress should definitely consider investing in building better infrastructures for underfunded community colleges. This will drastically increase the capacity of these institutions to provide additional support for their students. These can come in as support measures for addressing child care needs, hunger, and homelessness for student-parents and low-income students.
Improving the resources of public colleges will also lead to a significant increase in graduation rates. Lawmakers could also choose to increase the funding for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs). Doing so can essentially make higher education more accessible for students of color as well.
Bridging the Gap
The challenges of accessibility, affordability, and quality are not entirely new issues because of the global pandemic. These have been at the forefront of higher education admissions trends for quite a while.
Recently, most institutions have shifted their focus and concern on the students who aren’t necessarily part of their admissions pool. Students they believe have been left behind. In this light, some colleges and universities have increased their capacities for financial aid opportunities and merit scholarships.
There has been a lot of effort from various institutions in addressing the economic needs of prospective students. This has encouraged countless students to strive for higher education, especially in the post-pandemic world. At the end of the day, closing the gap in the accessibility of higher education will require major legislative reforms from Congress.