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Reducing College Costs Means More Than Reducing Tuition

Richard Buery Jr. is KIPP's chief of policy and public affairs. Before joining KIPP, Richard served as deputy mayor for New York City Mayor (and presidential aspirant) Bill de Blasio, and he also founded the Children's Aid College Prep Charter School in the South Bronx. Richard will be writing about why charters can help solve segregation, why career and technical education matters, and how to reduce the cost of college attendance.

Imagine if you had to choose between paying rent or eating lunch. That's the choice many of our students face when they go to college.

In recent surveys, 57 percent of KIPP alums said they were worried about running out of food, and 43 percent missed meals to pay for school-related expenses. Students cannot focus on excelling in college if they must worry about paying for everyday essentials.  

Calvon Jones, a KIPP alumnus from KIPP ENC College Prep Public Schools, was dropped off at Morehouse College his freshman year but didn't have the heart to tell his parents he didn't have a permanent place to stay. "After we unloaded the car and I fixed up my room, my parents drove down the road. When they were out of sight, I packed up my room and left because I didn't have the money to actually take the space," he said. He was able to get help from the financial aid office and used his credit card for expenses. He graduated in 2015 with substantial student loans and $17,000 in credit card debt.

Like many other Americans, I was deeply inspired by Robert F. Smith's pledge to erase the college debt of Morehouse's 2019 graduating class. But students like Calvon should not have to depend on the generosity of philanthropists to live lives of choice and opportunity. The cost of college today is not sustainable. Low-income families spend 72 percent of their income to send their children to college after grants and scholarships, compared with 27 percent and 14 percent spent by middle-and high-income families, respectively.

The Democratic presidential primary has seen a debate between calls for free tuition for all students versus relief targeted to lower-income students. This is an important discussion to have. But wherever you fall in this debate, it is clear that to reduce the cost of college, we have to do more than reduce tuition. 

To reduce costs, we must incentivize state spending on higher education by creating a robust partnership that prioritizes first-dollar, need-based aid programs. More than half of states have a program (or a proposed program) to address affordability. But in many cases the money can only be used for tuition and not for other expenses like books, housing, or food. Others fail to offer aid to older or working students. And these are often last-dollar programs, meaning they are offset by other aid like Pell Grants.

As Calvon's story shows, tuition is not the only expense that stands in the way of student success. Research from the University Innovation Alliance shows that even a small expense can detour students. Students from low-income families are much more likely to be at risk of dropping out because of non-tuition expenses.

Some colleges, like Georgia State University, are helping students with persistence grants. They can be as small as a few hundred dollars—just enough to buy books or take a non-paying internship. Starting this year, five KIPP regions are offering persistence grants to help alumni overcome financial burdens while in college. This program began four years ago at KIPP DC. Since implementation, 95 percent of recipients either graduated or are still in college. Persistence grants are not a silver bullet, but they can make a significant difference.

Students also need more transparency about the true costs of higher education. At KIPP our high school counselors work to ensure KIPP students understand the true cost of going to each college they're considering, as well as those schools' graduation rates and their students' economic outcomes. But students and counselors need more and better information to make good choices. Students should have access to college completion rates, post-college earnings, unemployment rates, and debt-repayment rates. And this data must be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and first-generation college-goers.

While the United States Department of Education has expanded the College Scorecard to include the average debt incurred by graduates of different academic programs at each college, they are abandoning the Obama-era regulation established to make for-profit colleges accountable for failing to graduate students. The push for transparency is a good one, of course, but there should be consequences when any institution leaves a student with loads of debt and no diploma.

At the end of the day, our students should not have to decide between having a meal or buying supplies for their college courses. We must do better by our students, not only because we care, but because our future is dependent on their success.

In this post, I highlighted one of the five recommendations KIPP is putting forth for consideration with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Click here to view all five >

—Richard Buery, Jr.

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