Film Series Explores History of Higher Education, Financial Aid

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff

The Lumina Foundation on Monday premiered a new film series exploring the history of federal financial aid programs, which the foundation hopes will move the conversation of reforming higher education forward in a more informed direction.

Created in partnership with the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), the film series is comprised of four short films each averaging 15 minutes in length. Through interviews with current and former higher education advocates and policymakers, the film series aims to tell the story of how the federal financial aid programs were created and how they have evolved into the system we know today.

Zakiya Smith, strategy director for the Lumina Foundation, said that when listening to conversations surrounding reforming higher education, she and her colleagues “felt like we were slowly losing institutional memory about how the programs were created” and what lessons can be learned from the past. The goal of providing a history of financial aid, she said, is so policymakers and higher education advocates can make more informed decisions about where to go from here, particularly during the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

The first two films of the series were shown at an event on Monday and each was followed by a brief panel discussion of the themes presented.

The first film, “How Did We Get Here: the Growth of Federal Student Loans,” focused on the creation and evolution of the federal student loan programs. 

During the panel discussion, Kathleen Smith, senior vice president for public affairs, policy, and member services with Access Group, said anyone entering the higher education policy field should be required to watch the film, as most of the issues discussed in it “are still being debated today.”

When the panel was asked what lessons can be learned from the history of the loan programs, Smith said that she feels the student “has gotten lost in some of this conversation.” She added that policymakers “need to go back to the genesis” of student loan programs and to refrain from making policy decisions based on bottom-line dollars rather than students and their best interests.

Tom Parker, senior associate that IHEP and one of the interviewees for the film series, said that he would like to see higher education institutions focus more on how to provide a high-value product for lower costs. He also said more attention needs to be paid to parent borrowers and the PLUS Loan Program.

In future discussions, more attention needs to be paid to the issue of higher education as a public good and priority for the country as a whole, and how to best help low-income individuals succeed in postsecondary education, panelists agreed.

The second film, “Where Financial Aid Began: Partnering with Campuses and States,” highlighted the origins of the campus-based programs, such as the Perkins Loan and Federal Work-Study programs, and touched on the decline in investment from state and federal partners. 

The following panel discussion largely centered on the decline in funding for campus-based programs and what can be done to reinvest in them. 

Gabriella Gomez, deputy director of U.S. program policy and advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said that one theme seen throughout the film and in practice is knowing which programs to fight for and what incentives to use. In the past, many campus-based programs did not receive much legislative support and many states were “let off the hook” for providing funding for them, Gomez explained.

Kristin Conklin, founding partner at HCM Strategies and a participant in the film series, said moving forward, there need to be better ways to track innovative state programs for financial aid and to provide federal support to those that have a clear commitment to student success.

Another panelist and film interviewee, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) President David Longanecker said that the time has come to remove “bad actors” from the campus-based programs and only provide money to states and institutions “who are willing to make progress and move forward.”

He added that incentives should be provided to higher education and state partners who are focused on access to higher education as well as student success, and partners who have an equal stake in the partnership. 

The first two films will be available for free from Lumina starting the week of November 17. The final two films - on the Pell Grant Program and need analysis and simplification – will be available in early 2015. To receive information on the films as they become available, subscribe to the Lumina Foundation’s newsletter.


Publication Date: 11/5/2014

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