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Educators Outline Steps to Ensure Student Access During Economic Uncertainty

Federal, state, institutional and private parties need to rethink how they are helping — and even hindering low- and moderate-income students’ advancement in higher education, said panelists at an event at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development on Friday.

Hosted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, the event brought together seven college presidents, lender representatives, state higher education officers, education scholars and advocates in a two-hour roundtable discussion.

During the session, the panelists outlined possible steps to ensure student access to higher education in this time of economic uncertainty. In an earlier session, the event provided conference attendees with a general overview of how deteriorating economic conditions may affect institutional financing, state appropriations, charitable giving, grant aid from all sources, and work and loan funds.

The Advisory Committee recently released data showing that millions of college-ready high school graduates encounter significant financial barriers that may worsen considerably over the next decade.

Richard G. Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, suggested that federal, state, private and institutional entities collaborate and form a partnership to better serve student financial needs. He also suggested an increase in Pell Grant funds.

Rhoda’s sentiments were echoed by Philip Day Jr., president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, and Hazel O’Leary, president of the historically Black Fisk University.

“Funding and support for students for the first two years is critical,” Day said, adding that the current federal Pell Grant program needs more funding. The U.S. House of Representatives is currently re-authorizing a bill directly involving the Pell Grant.

When discussing solutions for students, Day said all parties impacted by the crisis must consider whether their solutions are short-term or long-term answers.

O’Leary said 91 percent of Fisk’s students are receiving some type of financial aid and over 50 percent are qualified for the Pell Grant. She went on to note that many students need some type of loan and that many do not meet the requirements for private loans.

Fisk recently ran a survey asking students how they finance their education. The institution found that the largest loan a student had accumulated was a $40,000 third-party loan — most of the University’s students come from household’s where the annual income is $30,000 or less, O’Leary said.

Deanne Loonin, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center, said many lending companies need to focus on crafting better products for students. She urged that companies pay more attention to the life of the loan and creating some type of “safety net” for students likely to accumulate debt. Lowering interest rates is not enough, Loonin said.

During the discussion, she said institutions need to help students on the “back end” of the student loan crisis by paying more attention to students who have already entered the financial aid process and need help alleviating their financial aid status.

Other panelists included David Gregory, vice chancellor for administration and facilities management for the Tennessee Board of Regents; Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education; and Sarita E. Brown, president of the Excelencia in Education, which promotes policies and practices that support higher educational achievement students — particularly for Hispanic students.

When the moderator opened up the floor for questions and comments, a member of the Advisory Committee said institutions also need to pay attention to the “cost of failure,” adding that many institutions misuse their resources by educating students at a level that is more advanced than where the students actually are. He suggested that these institutions pay more attention to graduation and completion rates.

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