Time to Stop Tinkering With College Affordability - and Take Action

Recently, I met a young Latina in Reno, Nev., whose story keeps ringing in my head. Growing up in a single parent household, her mom worked as a nurse's aide making just over minimum wage. When they were old enough, she and her sister got part-time jobs to help out. But even then, they constantly worried about whether they had enough money to pay the rent and keep the electricity from being turned off.

When we think about asking students to finance college with sizeable debt, we have to think harder about students like this young woman. It's one thing for those of us who earn a decent living to take on debt to help our kids through college or even to ask our kids to take on some of that debt. But imagine what it was like for this young woman in Reno and her mom to think about taking on $10,000 or $20,000 or even $50,000 in debt to send just one child to college.

The truth is, this plucky young woman graduated from college, and as a result, both she and her children will have a better life. But her story is not unique. Every year, more than 100,000 college-qualified low-income students don't enter college at all, and cost is a major barrier.

While student aid spending is on the rise, who we are spending that money on has changed -- a declining share is being spent on students who absolutely cannot go to college without it, and huge increases are being spent on those who don't need it at all. Currently, almost half of all college students borrow, and those who earn bachelor's degrees leave school with an average of $26,600 in debt.

Choices made at every level -- federal, state, and institution -- have affected the cost of college and levels of student debt. Though the federal government is not the only culprit here, too many of its programs are inefficient and poorly targeted. They don't get sufficient resources to the students who need them most and fail to incentivize institutions and states to make sure students graduate.

America needs to take on the issue of college affordability and student debt not with a few Band-Aids, but with an aggressive, comprehensive attack that engages all of the critical players. We can't wait to do that.

To help solve this problem, The Education Trust has crafted a broad redesign of federal financial aid. By creating a system that shares responsibility among the federal government, state governments, institutions of higher education, and students and families themselves, we have proposed a budget neutral pathway to help low-income students attend and complete college with no loans and middle-income students to do the same with no-interest loans. Once fully implemented, our proposal would deliver a debt-free college education to some 2 million low-income and working class students as well as interest-free loans with affordable income-based repayment terms to another 1.5 million middle and upper middle-income students each year.

In exchange for more than $20 billion in funds retargeted from existing federal programs and made newly available to states, we're encouraging all stakeholders to take steps -- and move outside of their comfort zones -- to become part of the solution. The involvement of states is vital to simultaneously address college access, affordability, and completion. But without all actors, our comprehensive overhaul will not be possible.

The mechanics involve consolidating and targeting a series of grant, loan, and higher education tax-related programs into new, flexible state aid - all with no additional cost to taxpayers. By repurposing this series of grants, loans, and tax benefits, students will be able to receive aid in a simpler, timelier manner.

It's time for us to stop tinkering with the federal financial aid system and give our students a real solution to the college affordability crisis. A comprehensive solution is the only way to help students like the young woman I met in Reno -- and all over the country -- move forward.