Student access and student success in higher education go hand in hand. Access to higher education for all Americans regardless of background was the intent of the original Higher Education Act, and a strong statement about equality from which higher education policy should not stray. Without meaningful student access, student success is hollow because our expectations of success should not be limited to a select few students, but available to all. Once a student is enrolled, colleges and universities have an obligation to provide a meaningful education that will help students succeed as citizens and workers far beyond graduation day. In the eyes of AFT, student success should be about making sure students have the resources to learn and succeed: rich curricula, excellent facilities, talented—and well-supported—faculty, and robust academic standards that are devised and improved by the people who deliver them.
State and federal disinvestment
Historically, public higher education has been regarded as one of our society’s greatest public goods, and past investments in its infrastructure have reflected this view. However, the shrinking commitment of federal and state financial support for public higher education during the past several decades has demonstrated a shift towards viewing higher education as a private benefit accruing to the individual. This attitude results in higher tuition and fees for students and disincentivizes the long term public investments necessary for quality postsecondary education.
State investment in higher education is at a 25 year low in inflation adjusted terms according to the annual State Higher Education Finance report. State and local governments have decreased their levels of investment in public colleges and universities to the point where many public university budgets can count on only 10 percent or less of state funding. This has resulted in higher tuitions which have left students assuming unreasonable levels of debt in order to attend college and prevented many from enrolling altogether or persisting in and completing their studies. Our federal student aid programs will forever struggle to ensure student access and promote student success if they are not coupled with strong commitments of disinvestment at the state level. The AFT believes that continued disinvestment in public higher education is having disastrous consequences for our nation, and that these consequences will be particularly pronounced for low-income students and people of color.
Federal student aid programs
Title IV of the Higher Education Act (HEA) regulates federal programs that provide financial aid to students, in the forms of grants and loans, to defray the cost of higher education. Among these programs are the Pell Grant, Federal Direct Loans, Federal Perkins Loans, and Federal PLUS Loans. In each renewal of HEA the AFT has fought for Pell grants that accurately reflect the cost of college and student loan policies that keep debt low and manageable.
The Pell grant has failed to keep up with the rising cost of tuition and the needs of today’s students. For the 2013-14 award year the maximum Pell Grant is $5,645 now covering the smallest portion of college costs in the program’s history: roughly 62 percent of the cost of a two-year degree and 36 percent towards a public four-year degree. In 2011 a funding shortfall reduced eligibility time for the grant from 18 semesters to 12 and eliminated grants for summer study. Initial studies have shown these changes have hurt poor and first-generation college students the most. The AFT promotes changes to and further investment in the Pell grant to increase student access to higher education.
The 2010 Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act transformed all student loan originations into Direct Loans, saving taxpayers $61 billion over ten years. That was an important step in creating a federal student loan policy that truly serves students but more needs to be done to prevent students and their families from being saddled with decades of student debt. Federal student loans should remain at reasonable interest rates and have a variety of repayment options. The AFT also strongly supports repayment terms and grants targeted to those who work in public service such as teachers, healthcare workers, and public employees.
The first GI Bill of 1944 allowed a generation of servicemen to attend college. Unfortunately, a number of dubious “degree-mill” style schools cropped up to profit from the federal money available. In looking for a litmus test on quality to protect students and taxpayers the federal government turned to accreditation bodies rather than develop a government controlled system. The principle of independent, peer-reviewed institutional quality assurance had already been established in higher education for more than thirty years. When the GI Bill was reauthorized in 1952 for Korean War veterans postsecondary education funds were limited to accredited institutions, setting a standard followed in every major piece of higher education legislation including the original Higher Education Act of 1965.
The AFT believes accreditors, whether the national regulatory boards, six regional accreditation organizations, or the many specialized discipline-specific accreditation must stay true to their original mission of quality assurance but provide more transparency. Only a fair, open, and predictable process can truly promote student success. We advocate for the inclusion of faculty, both contingent and non-contingent, and front-line professional staff such as advisors, at all levels of the accreditation process. This is not only because these professionals are the most directly involved in student success, but because a peer-review process ought to reflect the reality of teaching and learning in college today.