Blog Post | September 23, 2008

A New Way to Think about Financial Aid

The Rethinking Student Aid study group released “Fulfilling the Commitment: Recommendations for Reforming Federal Student Aid,” a report that evaluates the current federal student aid system, and develops a new strategy for financial aid programs.

Members of the media have asked the Institute for College Access & Success’ President Robert Shireman for his thoughts on the recommendations, and here’s what he has to say:

There are enough specifics that the proposals could have legs. Too often these types of commissions produce unrealistic wish lists and vague exhortations. In contrast, this group took a more hard-headed analytical approach. They came up with some creative ideas and made some tough choices. The proposals are clear enough that policymakers could actually follow up. Of course, being specific and not asking for the moon also means that there will be dissent. The proposals will prompt the type of discussion that can yield actual improvements in college access and success.

The savings proposal is the newest and most interesting. Telling a low-income family that some money has been put aside in an account sends a much stronger signal than telling them ‘there’s a program you can apply to.’ Money in the bank, when the child is in middle school and still has high aspirations, will help parents and students to plan and prepare both financially and academically.

In principle it makes a lot of sense to have just one loan program. But that subsidy shouldn’t just be taken away. It should benefit students with improved help in repayment and more grant aid. The idea of increased loan limits needs to be approached carefully. We need to pay attention to how colleges may respond, and also how parents respond. It would be best to encourage parents to take on some of the burden before students take on more.

An incentive fund for states makes a lot of sense, but it’s been difficult for the idea to get traction. It’s not very sexy. But given the huge state role in funding higher education, it’s probably one of the most important things the federal government could do, if done creatively.