Conference: Independent Colleges Urged to Enhance Their Affordability

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Despite fiscal constraints that have put current funding levels of federal student aid in limbo, there are still concrete steps that universities and colleges should take to make college more affordable for low-income students.

That was one of the key messages delivered Monday at the 35th annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU).

“Your policies can make a huge difference. Federal policies can make a huge difference,” Pauline Abernathy, Vice President at The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), an Oakland, Calif.-based advocacy organization, told attendees during a presentation titled “Student Debt: A Growing Crisis.”

Among other things, she said, university administrators should make sure their institutions are doing everything they can to get students maximize on federal loans to avoid taking out riskier private student loans. Federal loans offer repayment options such as deferments. She also noted that Black students are more likely to take out the more risky private loans than other students.

“It has to do with whether there’s a person in a leadership position and that school has decided to address it,” Abernathy said. Students need help in getting the maximum amount of federal loans. “There’s abundant evidence that it makes sense and that it could be effective. That’s a case where there’s truly unnecessary borrowing going on that could be addressed.”

The NAICU conference, which drew 400 university administrators from throughout the nation, continues through Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. The fact that the conference is being held just a stone’s throw from Congress is not by mere happenstance.

Throughout the conference, attendees were advised to prepare to make their case to Congress for federal student aid.

Dr. David Warren, president of NAICU, made no bones about the issue of the independent colleges and universities pleading their case on Capitol Hill.

” If ever there was a time we need to do it, it is now and it is absolutely urgent,” Warren said. “All of us are following the discussion by the media of the deficit and debt, on questions of size of government, the appropiateness of the size of a particular program.”

“We need to make a case as to why a special federal student aid matters significantly to those low-income students who are in our institutions,” Warren said. “We must make our case, and at the end of the day, it’s called ‘lobbying.’”

Addressing issues of student debt is particularly urgent, Abernathy said, because funding to keep Pell grants at the current amount of $5,550 expires within the next few weeks, and the levels may be rolled back to 2008 discretionary funding levels for non-security programs unless Congress decides otherwise.

“For Pell grants to go back to the 2008 funding level would mean more than a $1,500 cut, so around $4,000 or so would be left (for each student), and for hundreds of thousands of students it would mean no Pell grant at all,” Abernathy said, referring to students who qualify for smaller Pell grants. “So these next five weeks are a really critical period for people to make their voices heard on this issue.”

NAICU conference speakers are set to deal with a number of topics, from the influence of religion and politics on higher education to making optimal use of technology in a digital age.

Conference speakers also touched on an emergent national conversation on issues of quality and accountability in higher education.

Bill Barrett, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, advised the attendees to be pro-active in discussions of accountability or run the risk of having unfriendly rules and regulations imposed upon them.

He was critical of efforts such as the “Big Goal” of the Lumina Foundation for Education to dramatically increase the number of college graduates by 2025, particularly since many of today’s college graduates are struggling to find work and many others are working jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. He was also critical of efforts by Lumina to create a “degree profile” that would delineate what various college degrees signify, arguing that accrediting bodies already set standards for what colleges must teach.

Others at the conference were more open to Lumina’s efforts and the overall idea of making institutions of higher education more accountable.

“Historically, higher education has been arrogant about assuring the public that it is delivering on its promise,” said attendee Andrew K. Benton, president and CEO of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., who referred to Lumina’s proposed degree profile as  “a good faith effort.”

“We’ve got to find a way to give the government and the public at large an assurance that we really are adding value that is worth paying the price we’re charging,” Benton said.