A college degree remains the strongest pathway to expanded opportunity and financial security, and our higher education system plays a key role in narrowing racial and economic inequities. But enrolling in college has become an increasingly risky proposition for too many students. Today, most students must borrow to cover their costs, and that debt investment may not pay off, especially if they don’t complete a degree or if a low-quality program diminishes their post-college prospects.

Many institutions also lack the resources to provide the quality of instruction and holistic supports that we know help students complete a degree; only about 60% of all students who enroll in college graduate within six years. And federal programs that provide basic needs supports to people with low incomes restrict students from accessing critical resources, including food and child care assistance, which can prevent them from achieving self-sufficiency.

These trends are especially harmful for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation students, and parenting students: such students are more likely to need to take out debt to enroll, less like to complete a degree, and more likely to default on their student debt, facing devastating consequences that can last for years.

Alarmingly, the pandemic worsened many of these pre-existing inequities. Community colleges have sustained a significant drop in applications and enrollment, especially among students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students — the very students for whom a degree can provide the most life-changing economic benefits.

For our higher education system to fulfill its promise, the federal government must provide more student aid, enable colleges to better support their students, perform stronger oversight of colleges, and better support students’ basic needs. Policymakers must also deliver on promised reforms to the unwieldy and often punitive student loan repayment system before the repayment pause ends.

Our 2023 Federal Policy Agenda outlines a comprehensive federal policy agenda to strengthen our nation’s higher education system, reduce the burden of student debt, and close longstanding racial and economic equity gaps in college enrollment and completion rates