Beyond “Free College”: Understanding all the financial barriers to student access and success

Jul 22, 2019 

By Michael Meotti

Executive Director, Washington Student Achievement Council

The “free college” public debate unintentionally reinforces the conventional wisdom that the cost of college is just a matter of what a student pays in tuition.  There’s a big missing piece – and I’m not referring to modest additional costs like books, parking and lab fees.

We must address challenges not typically considered part of higher education policy such as homelessness, food insecurity, childcare availability and cost, transportation and more.

A little background: When most Americans hear “college student” they instinctively visualize a young adult between 18-24 years old dependent on parents to pay the bills.  The stereotypical student lives in dorms, devotes almost all of her time to education and does not think about financial pressures.

These traditional images of college students no longer match reality, though.  Over a third of all college students are over the age of 25.  Almost a quarter of undergraduate students are parents, many of them single parents.

Poverty is found on college campuses of all types.  One fifth of students claimed as dependents and 42% of independent students are in poverty  – an income threshold (approximately $25,000 for a family of four) that wildly conflicts with the fairy-tale world portrayed in television programs set on college campuses. The majority of both dependent and independent students are in poverty, near poverty of in lower middle income households according to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center.

Surveys repeatedly find homelessness and food insecurity everywhere.  A Center for Law and Social Policy’s July 2019 report discusses:

  • the California State University system’s survey that found 10% of their  460,000 students were homeless and 20% lacked adequate access to food;
  • the HOPE Lab national survey that found 12% of community college students and 9% of four year college students were homeless at some point during the previous year; and
  • a US Government Accountability Office study that found 39% of all undergraduates, totaling 7.3 million students, to be at risk of food insecurity.

The economist’s concept of “opportunity cost” in the decision to go to college is very different for students from lower income families.  They are not making an abstract trade off based on an ROI analysis of future impacts on earnings power. Many of these students drop out because they find “it’s too hard to juggle work and school.”

There is hope though, from federal, state and local programs that can support students as they carve out the time for their education.

This is a challenge of budgets, policy and practice. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), generally known as food stamps can go a long way to improve food security for students.  But though the money may be available, many students aren’t taking advantage of it; sometimes because they’re just not aware of the option, sometimes out of a sense of pride. A 2018 study projected that 63,000 undergraduate students in Washington are eligible for SNAP; but only 13,000 receive benefits.

States, fortunately, are beginning to pick up the slack. The Washington Student Achievement Council,  for example, our state’s higher education cabinet agency, recently made the alignment of all student supports a strategic priority.

The newly adopted state budget in Washington made state financial aid for lower income families an entitlement and increased the income eligibility levels.  Washington went well beyond the core notion of “free college” to include expansion of childcare subsidies, pilots to serve homeless students and emergency grant programs so that small dollar challenges are less likely to cause college students to drop out.

There are more. In Oregon, 2018 legislation launched the Pathways and Opportunity Initiative to coordinate benefits for community college students and Tennessee where the Department of Human Services connects public assistance recipients with college financial aid.  Other states including California, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have focused on aligning specific programs, such as SNAP, with student populations.

There are no comprehensive systems in place to address other challenges such as transportation and childcare. In many parts of the country, a car is essential to get to college classes.  Even if supported with subsidies, childcare may not be available especially during the hours and on the days that many students take classes.

Americans do not live in silos, and that includes college students and those who would like to attend but cannot.  Policy makers and agency leaders need to break down the domains we have created under distinct brands such as education, social services or public health.   Students face barriers across the full spectrum of issues. We must align our work to the reality of American life today.