Affordability Principles for Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act

Students attend their graduation ceremony in Los Angeles, California, June 2019.

The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is a once-in-a-decade opportunity for Congress to take action on making college more affordable for students, particularly for students of color and low-income individuals. Today, the Center for American Progress along with two dozen other organizations is releasing joint principles calling on the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to secure and strengthen the federal Pell Grant, establish a new federal-state partnership to address funding issues, and ensure that the federal loan system adequately protects borrowers. These principles should come in addition to changes that strengthen accountability and accreditation.

Below is a post that CAP and its partners are sharing that explains the principles in greater detail.

Today, the College Affordability Coalition—25 organizations representing students and families, institutions, consumers, and civil rights groups—released principles for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to ensure college is affordable for all Americans, including students of color and low-income students. The principles cover three areas where Congress must make real investments to promote equity and help more students earn college degrees: strengthening the Pell Grant program, renewing a federal-state partnership for college affordability, and creating a borrower-centered federal loan system.

Recognizing that the Pell Grant is the cornerstone of federal student aid—helping nearly 8 million students afford college each year, many of whom are students of color—we call on Congress to take steps to secure and strengthen the Pell Grant program. The principles call for protecting Pell from the annual budget cycle, doubling the maximum award to cover at least half the cost of attendance at  public universities, and restoring the automatic adjustment for inflation. Additionally, the principles call for Pell to be expanded to incarcerated individuals; for the elimination of the question on drug convictions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid; for access to be provided to certain eligible undocumented students, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiaries and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) beneficiaries; and for a careful approach to short-term programs that seek to use Pell dollars. These reforms are needed because Pell Grants have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of college. Today, the maximum Pell award covers less than 30 percent of the cost of attendance at a public four-year college or university. The declining purchasing power of Pell must be addressed with necessary investments in the program to ensure that low-income students can access and complete higher education in an economy where a postsecondary degree has never been more valuable.

The Coalition also calls for the creation of a new federal-state partnership that invests federal and state dollars to bring down the cost of college—including tuition and nontuition costs—and ensure schools are adequately resourced to serve students well. State per-student funding is still far below what it was before the Great Recession, and we need both states and the federal government to do more. A funding partnership that addresses inequities in where dollars are spent, responds to budgetary challenges facing states when a recession hits, and, over time, provides affordability guarantees to students so they know what they can expect to pay for a degree must be a critical component of any major new affordability efforts in Congress.

Finally, the principles call for a federal loan system that protects borrowers. Student debt assures that the failings of our higher education system weigh down students for years or decades after they leave school. Student debt is particularly burdensome for borrowers of color, whose repayment challenges are compounded by wealth inequality, systematic racism, and labor market discrimination. The principles call for improving borrowers’ repayment options and funneling any savings generated into additional benefits for low- and moderate-income borrowers. They also call for streamlining borrowers’ pathways out of debt, providing automatic discharge when possible, and reducing the punitive consequences of default. Finally, they call for improved oversight and transparency in the loan program, particularly for contractors who interact with borrowers such as loan servicers and private collection agencies.

These principles have been developed with the goals of closing equity gaps, ensuring that all Americans can afford to obtain a postsecondary degree, and preventing student debt from becoming a burden for students that cannot be overcome. The time is now for Congress to act and make college affordable for all Americans.

Failing to act on these principles is unacceptable. Waiting another decade for the next Higher Education Act to make meaningful progress on affordability will doom millions more students to an insufficient and inequitable system.

Colleen Campbell is the director of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. Ben Miller is the vice president for Postsecondary Education at the Center.