Access to Higher Education is About More than Just Costs

There is bipartisan recognition that students ought to be encouraged to attend some form of  higher education. Whether that lies in college or trade school, it’s clear that most lawmakers recognize that America’s position in the global economy relies on an educated workforce that can break boundaries and push the economy forward.

Yet, while there is seems to be universal support for college education in our country, there’s still the issue of cost to take into consideration, and unfortunately, research shows that students are much less likely to graduate from college if their parents are poor.

“[Over the past four decades], the percentage of Americans in the top income quartile who had attained a baccalaureate degree by age 24 rose an estimated 31 points: from 40.2 percent to 71.2 percent,” Arizona State University President Michael Crow writes. “In contrast, during the same four decades, baccalaureate attainment rates for the lowest income quartile increased only 4.2 points: from 6.2 percent to 10.4 percent.”

This means that students from families on the more affluent side of the spectrum are over 60.8 percent more likely to attend college than those from lower income families, which is troubling for those hoping to achieve higher educational outcomes than their parents. After all, in today’s economy, having an advanced degree is crucial.

Increasing access to college for every student can help address the widening skills gap that is present in the U.S. workforce.

“In the past, unemployment was inexorably tied to a shortage of jobs,” Fortune author Elisabeth A. Mason notes. Referencing a landmark Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce study, she continues, “Today, that’s no longer necessarily the case: unemployment and underemployment are too commonly a mismatch between the skills required to fill a job and a workforce lacking those skills.”

Today, these problems can be partially solved through multidisciplinary education that is easily accessible. As such, college affordability, access, and reform have long been key challenge for higher education leadership, and policymakers have been heavily involved as well.  

However, dealing with inflated tuition costs is only half of the battle, and for educators and leaders to truly aide in helping increase college access, they must also consider factors outside of tuition, including affordable child care, commuter expenses, access to affordable food and housing, and helping students to maintain a healthy student-work life balance.

As Mason writes later, the reasoning behind this is simple. “The typical college student is no longer the 18-year old freshman from the suburbs, living in the dorm on campus. A majority of students today are what is known as ‘non-traditional:’ they are older, they have kids, they hold down full time jobs while pursuing their course work.”

For those non-traditional students, it’s no longer enough to just ensure that tuition is low cost. Pre-existing economic burdens must be considered in order to make college truly affordable for those who need access to it the most.

It’s clear that in order for economic prosperity, and the betterment of society that things must change, but reform in education is no easy feat. As noted by an article from Maryville University, “Agility is not a word we typically associate with the business of higher education. There is no question that effecting change within a historically inflexible system is nothing less than a monumental undertaking.”

Still, if America is to overcome the widening skills and opportunity gap, and make college degrees as commonplace as high school diplomas were a generation ago, these hurdles to access must be overcome. Students should not only be able to pay for their tuition without breaking the bank, but also have incentive enough to continue their education and become invaluable assets in the modern economy.

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