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Moving the Needle on College Affordability

By Caleb Cornelius

Affordability, according to our subcommittee is “the alignment between the student’s desired educational goal and total cost, funding mechanisms, time to completion, and long-term improvement in that individual’s quality of life attributable to their postsecondary education.” I wholeheartedly agree with this definition; the challenge is how to ensure that each of these components aligns for each student while still measuring success on an institutional, state, or—in this case—federal level. As a taxpayer, I want to ensure that the funding provided to individuals to pursue their education is ultimately providing a public benefit in addition to personal enrichment.

When I think about affordability related to higher education, I think of my own experience (I know it is a limited perspective). As a 17-year-old high school student, I had no idea how I was going to pay for college. My parents worked hard, I worked during the school year and summers, but when I received the first acceptance letter to my number one choice for university, I immediately recognized that my number one choice was not an affordable option for me.

As a result of my initial experience, I began to question how I could obtain the degree I knew I needed to pursue my dream of becoming a CEO; then I started to wonder how anyone could afford to go to college. According to a 2014 study of the American public’s opinion on higher education, I am not alone in this thought. In this study, it was discovered that more than 75 percent of American adults do not perceive higher education is affordable. Given the July 2017 estimated population of adults, that is nearly 190 million individuals in the United States.

Today, nearly 15 years later, the question of how anyone can afford college has become a theme behind the national discord swirling around higher education. Purposely, the Forward50 members were selected to bring “thoughtful, innovative ideas for the future of federal student aid” and represent some of the top higher education institutions in the nation. Week after week, call after call, article after article, study after study, our subcommittee members have been asking "How do we propose solutions at the federal policy level to address the challenge of affordability?" We are beginning to define some of those solutions, but will they be innovative enough?

We think the answer is within the details of what affordability looks like on an individual basis, both from the student’s perspective as well as the other interested parties, such as parents, taxpayers, lawmakers, higher education institutions, and industry experts. When I started working in higher education eight years ago, the willingness to collaborate with other institutions was refreshing to me. Having begun my career in the world of publicly traded companies, I was not accustomed to readily sharing our successful endeavors with our competitors, this was refreshing and provided a glimpse into why higher education has been such a source of innovation over the years.

As a first-generation college student, I ultimately went to college at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY to earn my Associate of Science degree in business administration before transferring to the State University of New York at Albany for my Bachelor of Science in business. I graduated on time, with little debt, and quickly began building a career in finance. Today I work for a community college where we strive each day to ensure any student, no matter their financial situation has the opportunity to complete their educational endeavors. I care about higher education because it has provided me the opportunity to work in a field I love that provides for my family and allows me to help those coming behind me.

I do not doubt that we, the Forward50, will accomplish our goal of providing “thoughtful, innovative ideas for the future of federal student aid.” As we start the process of formalizing our recommendations in the coming months, I am looking forward to the second on-site meeting of the Forward50 in December in Las Vegas. Once the recommendations are approved by the group, we will begin a period of review by the vast group of associations, higher education experts, researchers, policymakers and others to help ensure we are on point and that we have provided valuable and viable solutions. The last thing we want to do is provide recommendations that won’t move the needle.

Catch up on any past Forward50 blog entries you may have missed.