Policy Implications

Photo: Victoria Pickering / Flickr

Policy Implications

Higher education can increase an individual’s economic mobility, and it has done so for millions of students who have earned degrees. But persistent gaps in educational attainment by race and income, the rising price of college and subsequent increase in student debt, and an increase in the number of students not completing their programs prevent college from being the springboard into the middle class that it should be. This may help explain why, according to our survey data, only one in four Americans thinks higher education is fine the way it is. 

The sense that higher education needs to change is something Megan understands. “I had an idea that if I worked really hard—like my parents did—I could work in the field that I wanted,” she explains. “I didn’t want to do anything glamorous, but I realize that it’s a pipe dream now. I think college and higher education is enriching and should be available to all who want it, but for me and many others in my generation, it hasn’t delivered on its promise.” 

The public opinion data gathered by our survey provide insights into what Americans know about, and how they perceive, higher education. These can help policymakers and researchers consider new ways for college to deliver on its promise, such as improving how it is financed, and meeting the needs of students who are older and more diverse than those in the past.

Financing Higher Education

Nearly three out of four Americans (71 percent) believe that higher education is good for society, but only half of Americans (58 percent) believe that federal and state governments currently pay less than half the associated costs with higher education. If Americans think higher education is a social good, then why is it not funded that way?

Americans are not wrong in their perception of how higher education is funded, especially for public four-year institutions. According to a New America analysis published last year, in 2012, dependent students and their families picked up over half (51 percent) the cost of a public four-year degree. In fact, data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) show state investments in postsecondary education have decreased by a billion dollars over the past 10 years. That decline was most precipitous during the fallout from the Great Recession. In 2008, per-student state funding averaged nearly $10,000. By 2012, it had fallen to approximately $7,000.

The high price of college and related expenses makes it difficult for many students to access and stay in school. Policymakers should consider two critical reforms when crafting approaches to reduce the price of college and other related expenses for students and families: account for living expenses, and increase college access through targeted low-cost or no-debt higher education.

Account for Living Expenses

In American primary and secondary schools, a federal free and reduced-price lunch program helps students from low- and moderate-income families. After high school, however, this benefit disappears. Many of the rules about accessing food stamps make eligibility for college students difficult. Many students also find it challenging to find affordable housing. The Wisconsin Hope Lab surveyed 4,000 community college students across the nation and found that 13 percent reported being homeless. Clearly, financial aid continues to fall short in providing for students, even when it helps to cover tuition and fees. 

Benefits access programs may be one way to expand access to financial resources for low- and moderate-income students. These programs, as highlighted by the Center for Law and Social Policy, “audit” students to assess which local, state, and federal benefits they may be eligible for beyond financial aid, and then they help with the necessary applications. These extra benefits can help provide a critical safety net for students struggling to make ends meet.

Federal, state, or local governments could also explore providing a universal basic income in which all Americans, regardless of student or employment status, receives a significant amount of extra income. This income could be structured so it is taxed, and so that the largest benefit would be targeted to low- and moderate-income individuals. This money would be available in addition to financial aid and could be used to help pay for living expenses like food, housing, and transportation. By helping cover these expenses, students could focus on taking more credits and working less, which would help hasten their time to degree.

Increase Access

Since Americans believe higher education is a social good, policymakers need to explore how to fund it in a way to ensure equal access and success for all. This can include, at state, local, and institutional levels, the creation of low-cost or debt-free college programs targeted to low-and middle-income students. Policymakers should particularly consider how to make these programs available to students who are beyond the traditional 18-to-22-year-old age range. They should also consider making these scholarships first-dollar, meaning the scholarships would be used to cover tuition and fees, allowing all other aid, such as the Pell Grant, to be used for other academic and living expenses. 

At the federal level, more must be done to ensure the Pell Grant—the cornerstone of federal financial aid for low-income students—maintains its purchasing power. The reinstatement of summer Pell—where full-time, year-round students can obtain Pell to cover summer enrollment—is a step in the right direction. At a minimum, Pell should be pegged to inflation to help keep up with the rising costs of college and with cost of living increases. Unfortunately, Congress has only provided this insurance through the end of this year, meaning the value of the Pell Grant will begin to deflate next year barring further legislative action.

A longer-term solution would be to transition federal financial aid to a block grant provided directly to states. In Starting from Scratch: A New Federal and State Partnership in Higher Education, we suggest that states should be required to distribute this funding to institutions. In order for institutions to participate, they would have to enroll a substantial share of low-income students, ensure students pay no more than their expected family contribution, and meet certain accountability benchmarks. This proposed partnership would be a new way to envision funding higher education: it targets aid to reduce the price of college to what students and families can afford, accounts for all academic and related living expenses beyond tuition and fees, and guarantees a more equitable higher education system.

Educating Today's Student

Over the last several decades, the profile of the traditional college student has changed considerably. It is not unusual, for example, for a college student to be much older than he or she would have been in the 1970s, and more likely to be attending school part-time while juggling work, family, and other responsibilities. According to U.S. Department of Education data, the average age of an undergraduate in 2012 was 26 years old, not 20. In addition, college campuses are also becoming increasingly diverse: many more students are first-generation, low-income, and non-white. As more working adults return to college to gain new skills and advance their careers, these trends are likely to continue.

To help students succeed in college, leaders of institutions of higher education and policymakers must design policies that help all students—academically, socially, and financially—in pursuit of higher education, not just traditional-aged students. That 58 percent of Americans believe institutional leaders put their schools’ long-term interests first, rather than students’ best interests and needs, only further drives this point home. 

Two policies that would go a long way in understanding students and facilitating their success: count all students in success metrics and scale practices proven to accelerate learning. 

Count all Students in Success Metrics

One prerequisite for addressing students’ needs is to include them all when measuring and accounting for college success. This, unfortunately, is not current practice. Simple questions like “do most people who go to college finish with a degree?” are not easy to answer. This is because federal graduation rates exclude part-time and transfer students, many of whom are low-income, underprepared, or non-white. Other data, like the earnings of students, exclude those who did not receive federal financial aid, including many community college students who paid their tuition out of pocket.

In part, this data exclusion is a function of the federal ban on revising federal reporting mechanisms to make them more inclusive of the millions of diverse students pursuing higher education. This ban should be reversed so policymakers and institutional leaders fully understand today’s students, their trajectories, and where there are roadblocks to success. In addition, data on graduation rates, debt and repayment, and employment after graduation should be publicly available. Students have the right to this information before they invest thousands of dollars toward a degree. 

Congress is pursuing legislative change to accomplish this. Members of the House and Senate introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act in 2012 to repeal this ban; another bill, the College Transparency Act, introduced by the House and Senate education committees this spring, follows suit. The College Transparency Act, if it becomes law, would allow the government to link existing student data across federal agencies to produce information on college completion, costs, and employment outcomes. The bill would both permit the government to better understand how students are faring across various institutions and increase transparency to provide better, clearer information to students and their families. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act—federal legislation providing support to colleges and students—presents an ideal opportunity to revisit and reverse this ban. 

Scale Practices That Accelerate Learning and Degree Completion

Higher education has begun to evolve to meet the distinct needs of diverse learners. These changes include granting credit for prior learning, providing competency-based education (CBE) so students can move through degree programs at their own pace, incorporating fully online courses or hybrid courses that blend online and in-person instruction, implementing predictive analytics to understand how students are performing and how to facilitate student success, and using open education resources (OER) to improve access to affordable and quality course materials. 

One reason for the relatively small-scale adoption of these innovative methods of teaching, learning, and reducing the price of college may be the lack of evaluation and evidence behind these practices. Until there is greater evidence that innovative approaches serve students better, helping them to earn high-quality degrees at an affordable price, institutions and policymakers should be cautious about adopting such new methods. Understanding exactly what strategies work for students, particularly underserved students, is crucial. For example, there is concern—and evidence from researchers Eric Bettinger of Stanford University and Susanna Loeb of the Brookings Institute—that online education may not be best suited for some of the most vulnerable learners: those who enter college underprepared. 

The rigorous evaluation of particular approaches or interventions can help identify what works and what does not, and for whom; and it may allow researchers and policymakers to assess and share best practices. The complexity of the higher education system—including highly diverse students with different needs—presents an added challenge to scaling policies. For example, what has worked well for moderate-income white students in Tucson, AZ might not work well for low-income Latino students in El Paso, TX.

Practitioners and researchers need resources and support from federal, state, and institutional policymakers as they gather the evidence they need to cement their confidence in what works well across various student demographics and study how to implement strategies effectively so that low-income and disadvantaged students benefit. 

Once a practice has been proven to meet the needs of today’s learners, more must be done to ensure that new methods of instruction or support reach their full potential. Currently, there are few federal or state mandates for institutions to meet the diverse learning needs of students. The reauthorization of Higher Education Act in 2008 did enact new rules for disclosing information about textbooks and packaging them, enabling professors and students to make smarter and cheaper purchases. But this change alone has not facilitated widespread adoption of OER by most institutions. 

A majority of institutions also face challenges in adopting innovative programs because of how the financial aid system is structured. Few programs focus on CBE and give students credit for proving what they know rather than focusing on how much time they have spent in a classroom. And this is because the financial aid and higher education accreditation system is built around relatively rigid definitions of time and coursework not easily adapted to new contexts of competencies or learning. This makes it difficult for students to receive federal financial aid for these innovative programs. If students do not have federal financial aid available to them, innovative programs like CBE become a hard sell since many rely on this aid to afford college.

Once research has sufficiently demonstrated promising results of various innovative teaching and learning strategies, Congress and the U.S. Department of Education should work to test the best ways to implement promising practices before scaling them. Experimental sites and/or a demonstration project could provide valuable insights on the best and safest ways to implement new policies. 


In our inaugural year of this survey, we have explored how the public feels about achieving the American Dream, higher education’s role in achieving it, and the value of particular colleges and universities. In coming years, we will explore how America’s attitudes about higher education change over time and consider other areas of inquiry relevant to current events. As this body of work builds, we hope to help inform policy development by raising awareness of the public’s attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs about higher education.