Addressing College Affordability - Iowa College Access Network - ICAN

Addressing College Affordability

College affordability, student loan debt, and degree completion are part of the national conversation these days, whether you’re a parent, a student, or a politician. While there are many theories about how we, as a society, should address these issues, one thing is clear: real improvement requires a shift in how higher education does business -- and how students and their families plan for a college education.

Everyone wants and needs students to complete entire degrees. But historically, higher education -- in concert with federal financial aid practices – has packaged, priced, sold, and required students to finance an entire degree one year at a time. It’s time for universities and families to be able to plan for the whole degree from the beginning and determine what is affordable in their individual circumstances.

For all the talk about it, no one seems to have offered a definition of “affordability” other than proposals to make public education “free.” As with any product or service, affordability is defined by each individual consumer; what’s affordable for one consumer may be completely out of reach for another. So here’s a simple definition that can work for every family: a college degree is affordable when the amount of personal resources (savings and earnings) a family is able and willing to spend PLUS all available financial aid (scholarships and grants from all sources) PLUS a manageable amount of student loans (defined by the amount of post-graduation monthly payments relative to anticipated monthly income) IS GREATER THAN OR EQUAL TO total educational costs (tuition, fees and books) PLUS living expenses (room, board, and personal expenses) accumulated over the time it takes to earn a degree.

But the higher education system doesn’t make it easy to gather the information you need to determine if a college is affordable for your family. Colleges and universities set tuition and room and board charges one year at a time. Financial aid is awarded one year at a time. It’s also difficult to predict your living expenses and how long it will take to graduate. Will you be able to take the courses you need when you need them? What if you change majors, add a minor or want to participate in your sport a little longer? Remember, much of the cost of a degree is related to how long it takes you to get it. Every additional semester (or year) adds cost. So how can families forecast, much less manage, their entire financial commitment if they can’t accurately estimate the cost of a degree?

All these challenges come about, quite simply, from the lack of a plan. If we want more students to get their degrees, families need clear and realistic plans from the outset—plans to complete and finance the entire degree. At Grand View, we’ve taken the bold step of implementing this “whole degree planning” with GV COMPLETE, which guarantees tuition and room and board prices for four years; it also requires students to develop both four-year plans-of-study to assure on-time graduation and four-year financial plans, supported by a customizable financial planning tool and coaching.

What we’ve found is that when students and families construct these plans, stick with them, and
have open and ongoing conversations about both financing and academic progress, they discover that a college degree really is affordable.

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