[This post originally appeared on the TEL Education website on March 23, 2021]
A big part of demonstrable equity in education is ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to receive high-quality learning aligned to the same baseline outcomes and providing opportunities for demonstrating evidence of their learning success. This is especially true for general education courses (grades 11-14) and associate degrees, which form the foundational layer of higher education and the opportunity for higher learning.
While there are many factors that contribute to equity (and subsequently, demonstrable equity) in higher education, affordability is certainly high on the list. After all, if students or their families can’t afford higher education, there’s little chance they will be able to access it.
The relationship between affordability and equity is the topic of a growing body of research that suggests college affordability directly impacts student decision-making and degree attainment. A more visceral picture of how the cost of higher education has become a barrier to equitable access can be seen in the latest iteration of Mark Perry’s “Chart of the Century.” Since 2000, the only consumer good or service that has increased more than college tuition and fees is hospital services!
And, while colleges and universities in the U.S. have attempted to offset rising tuition prices with discounting and numerous financial aid packages, the end result is an increase in student borrowing and financial debt. At the beginning of 2021, that debt is in excess of $1.7 trillion, an increase of roughly 250% since 2006.
When we think about equity and equitable access to education, what we’re really talking about is giving everyone a chance to learn. With that in mind, here are four ways in which making learning truly affordable supports TEL’s goal of demonstrable equity in higher education today.
Affordability lowers a primary barrier to pursuing higher education
There are many different barriers that can prevent students from pursuing higher education. For first-generation students, the complexities of college applications, registration, and enrollment can make it easy to say “no” or “not now.” For others, the major holdup to continuing their education is the general uncertainty about whether or not they are academically prepared to succeed in college courses.
The biggest barrier for many, however, is the financial investment required to take even a semester’s worth of college courses. Removing this barrier by making the cost of college courses truly affordable, makes it much easier for students to say “yes” to higher learning and also reduces the anxiety associated with other barriers. This is particularly true in underserved groups that are less likely to attend college, such as inner-city and rural populations.
Affordability lowers the risk related to exploring areas of learning interest
Almost everyone who has attended college and earned a degree will admit that a certain amount of exploration was involved in their journey. They began their studies with one major in mind but, after a specific course or hearing a visiting speaker, they decided to pursue a different area of study. Many would argue that this is precisely what should happen in higher education.
When college courses aren’t affordable, however, exploring new areas of interest just doesn’t make sense. It’s simply too expensive to do anything other than stay with the original plan, whether the student likes it or not. By making college credit truly affordable, students can afford to pursue academic interests outside their original major or area of emphasis. This will, in turn, allow them to find a path of professional interest that they are more likely to enjoy long-term.
Affordability lowers the cost of pursuing a four-year degree (and a career)
Whether for high school students or adult learners, making the first two years of college study truly affordable is the best way to reduce the total cost of pursuing a four-year degree at public or private universities. First, affordable general education studies give students more opportunities to explore and understand their interests before beginning studies in their major area. This means a greater certainty about their career pathway and a higher likelihood of on-time degree completion, which further reduces the costs of attending college. In addition, this kind of affordable pathway also makes it possible for students to complete an associate degree without incurring student debt. With an associate degree, a student can spend time in a professional career before deciding whether they need additional coursework or exactly what degree they should pursue.
Affordability can increase retention rates for colleges and universities
When we allow students to begin their college journeys affordably and give them the ability to explore specific areas of interest without racking up sizable amounts of student debt, the end result is students who can pursue four-year degrees with a greater sense of certainty and passion. Without reduced financial pressures, these students are also more likely to enjoy their studies and go the extra mile to complete them (after all, they can afford to). This means an increase in retention and degree completion rates for colleges and universities.
Long-term Student Success Begins with Affordability
While the pathway to higher education continues to evolve, the need for continued education after high school remains the same. The world our students graduate into changes quickly, and the knowledge and skills they learn will help them navigate those changes more easily. Providing affordable options so students can not only access the courses they need but also successfully complete their learning journey means more people are ready to face the challenges of an increasingly fast-moving world.
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- University Tuition, Consumer Choice and College Affordability: Strategies for Addressing a Higher Education Affordability Challenge
- Piecing Together the College Affordability Puzzle: Student Characteristics and Patterns of (Un)Affordability
- A Look at the Shocking Student Loan Debt Statistics for 2021
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