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Voices: A call for more college student aid

Adams State University President David Svaldi says our nation’s future hinges on making sure the neediest students have a way to pay for college.

As the fall election gathers steam, we hear various candidates’ plans for saving America. There is no doubt that the federal government’s budget “has issues.” It may be that all of the things we used to be able to afford as a country of a mere 200 million Americans are no longer affordable in a country of 313 million.

But as the candidates float trial balloons for what is affordable based upon their personal philosophies, let’s consider what the country should invest in for a better, brighter future for all citizens.

Obviously, the ax I am going to grind is my own ax: the importance of investing in higher education students. I will narrow that to support for the lowest-income and first-generation students, those who are being steadily priced out of the higher education market.

As states have reduced support for public colleges and universities, public institutions have had to make up the difference with higher tuition. Just a few years ago, Colorado subsidized approximately two-thirds of each student’s cost, while the student was responsible for the remaining one-third, either through direct payment or through financial aid, including grants, scholarships and subsidized loans.

Today, this ratio has flipped, with students and families responsible for two-thirds of the cost and the state supporting only about one-third. To compound the problem, state and federal need-based financial aid is being reduced, while colleges and universities increase tuition to make up for state cuts.

But college is still affordable for higher-income students. Historically, 70 percent of students in the upper income quartile complete a four-year degree. So the so-called 1 percent will be OK. However, capable students in the lowest-income bracket face a greater challenge. The degree completion rate for them is only about 10 percent. There is no doubt that completion numbers will drop as the price continues to climb.

Why should we care?

In the 1980s, President Reagan stated that the American Dream was possible for anyone, as long as they were willing to pay for it. Of course, we are all responsible for ourselves. But this does not mean we have no responsibility to others or to the future.

When America’s “Greatest Generation” returned from WWII, having endured incredible challenges, the original GI Bill was passed by a grateful nation. This became the best-educated generation in American history. The positive economic wave they rode and that their children, the Boomers, were allowed to ride was driven by the social good that came from their having earned college and university degrees. America’s Greatest Generation invested in the future and created the great country we have today.

America’s college completion rates are stagnating. The U.S. used to lead the world in this category, but now we are at least 17th – even lower for STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). We are faced with importing our future engineers and scientists.

Our largest and fastest-growing group of potential high school and college students in the Southwest includes first-generation Latino and Hispanic students, many of whom are low-income. The return on investment that could come from increasing their success could drive a future economic boom.

The new GI Bill has some good benefits, but navigating the federal bureaucracy to access them can be daunting. The federal Pell program, which so far has retained bi-partisan support, also provides important resources for low-income students, but by itself cannot overcome all the challenges they face.

America needs to build on these two programs and invest in the future for our young people, for the good of us all.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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