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Students Were Largely Ignored

By Sarita Gupta

Sarita Gupta is president of the United States Student Association.

Sarita Gupta
ON A RECENT COLLEGE VISIT, I accompanied a group of students to their journalism class. The professor instructing the class was attempting to field a question when it became apparent that he did not have the precise answer for which the class was searching. However, a student in the class raised her hand and offered some technical insight. The professor kindly deferred to the student, recognizing her experience as valuable, and, at the conclusion of her explanation, he added additional analytical commentary.

This inclusive approach is one we, as students, feel must be adopted for the nation to confront effectively the problem of college cost. Studentsí voices are essential in ensuring that questions regarding college cost are challenging and that solutions are comprehensive.

Recently, Congress was confronted with the complex issue of the student loan interest rate, which, because of the divergent needs of students and bankers, seemed to have no readily apparent solution. Much like the issue of college cost, this impacts students greatly.

In approaching the issue, leadership of the education committees actively sought student participation in drafting a solution. What resulted was a compromise that will save students billions of dollars while ensuring that bankers can remain in the business of lending to students.

Unfortunately, this same rapport was not sought by the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education. This has lead to a report that does not adequately address the problem of college cost or offer aggressive solutions in which we can put our faith.

  Related information
  A Short History of the Cost Commission
In its report, the Commission speaks of "shared responsibility" of various players, including students and families, in controlling college cost. Yet, the Commission offered students no real role in its decision-making process or in crafting its recommendations.

Students were told that we are stakeholders and we have "an obligation to respond to the issues outlined in [the] report," but we were not invited to sit at the table and present our opinions or to hold others accountable as they prepared an "action agenda" to submit to federal legislators.
We do not make this point simply because we feel slighted, but because we do not feel the best solutions to the dilemma of college cost can be found without student insight.

A student analysis of the Commissionís recommendations:

Strengthen institutional cost control.
We commend the Commission for urging challenges to the basic assumptions governing how institutions think about quality and cost. We also agree that institutions should "conduct efficiency self-reviews and identify effective cost-saving steps."

However, for these reviews to be fruitful, students must be included in the review board. As the primary consumers of the goods the university sells, students will be among the most vociferous in ensuring implementation, as opposed to just discussion, of cost-saving measures.

Improve market information and public accountability.
We also support the Commissionís recommendation for improved consumer information and public accountability. The United States Student Association (USSA) has been a long-time advocate of a large-scale public-awareness campaign on financial aid, college preparation and comparative analysis of college costs and prices.

Such a campaign can be spearheaded either by the federal government or the higher education community. However, it must be sure to stay focused on providing information in a manner that is not merely accessible to students and families but also attractive enough to appeal to those who believe college is beyond their means.

Deregulate higher education.
We understand the need for relieving certain regulatory burdens. However, institutions will benefit by sharing information on cost, and federal regulations calling for such disclosure are worthy of serious attention. Currently, there is a large distrust among students concerning the cost structure of their universities.

We also believe certain regulations, such as those requiring reports on campus crime, need to be strengthened.

Enhance and simplify federal student aid.
When we talk about cost, we must view it in the broader context of access to higher education. Any discussion on cost must include strong recommendations that Congress examine the shift in federal financial aid from grants to loans, that states reevaluate their own investment in educating their residents, and that institutions improve efforts in making sure aid is properly targeted.

  Related information
  Chart comparing Congressional Requests with the work of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education
We applaud the Commission for recognizing the necessity of diverse grant and aid programs, each catering to different needs. As the student population changes dramatically over the next several years, the unique purposes of these programs, as well as increased flexibility for financial aid administrators in assessing individual need, will be vital.

Where the Commission fell short.
The Commission failed to consider or emphasize a number of issues that needed to be addressed. Although the report acknowledges that there is an "unfinished agenda," we were disappointed that the Commission did not look seriously at the role states play in influencing college cost or the changing demographics of students and their changing needs.

The federal government, institutions, students and families all need to participate in holding state governments accountable. Whether it be by instituting tuition freezes, investing more heavily in state grant programs, or appropriating more dollars to state institutions, states play a very important role in access to education.

We also would advocate that legislators and others examine the role of early intervention and support services for low-income and first-generation students. The Commission tells students it is their responsibility to "arrive at college prepared for college-level work" but does not consider that for many the support needed to ensure that type of preparation is unavailable.

Finally, we were perplexed by the Commissionís comparison of affordability (total price minus grants) and accessibility (total price minus all financial aid). While we value the aid offered to students in the form of loans, we ask others to understand that undertaking such debt has a large impact on the value of the investment.

We, too, believe college education is the most sound investment an individual can make, but it is also an investment for society. As together we make efforts to control college costs, the government, philanthropic organizations and institutions all need to strengthen their commitment to grant aid and reducing the cost of loans. Only with such a commitment by all parties will the return on studentsí and familiesí college investment continue to "far exceed" the price we pay.

Photo by John Harrington / Blackstar

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