Students Should Be Focus Of State Aid Program Redesigns, Experts Say

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff 

States looking to redesign their student financial aid programs should focus on providing better incentives and support for students and reprioritizing funds for the neediest students, especially low-income and non-traditional students, panelists said during an event in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

The event was hosted by the Education Commission of the States and USA Funds to launch their report, “Redesigning State Financial Aid: Principles To Guide State Aid Policymaking.” The report kicks off a two-year project on how states can redesign their student financial aid policies to better meet the needs of today’s students. The report outlines four principles states should follow:

  1. Financial aid policies need to be student centered, particularly for non-traditional students.
  2. Financial aid programs should be goal driven and data informed.
  3. Financial aid programs must be timely and flexible to help today’s students achieve access and completion goals.
  4. Financial aid programs need to be broadly inclusive of all education pathways and the varying ways student are experiencing education today, including online and competency-based education.

During Wednesday’s event, a panel of higher education experts discussed the impact state aid has on students and how it can be improved. 

Alison Griffin, senior vice president of External and Government Relations at USA Funds, said that her group got involved with the project because there appears to be a commitment to a national conversation around the need to address non-traditional students. And while change at the federal level can be time consuming, state governments “might be able to move the conversation along a little more quickly,” she said.

Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission Executive Director Ben Cannon said that state-level policymakers often focus only on what they can achieve without assistance from the federal government, where he says there are more opportunities to design and try out effective programs. 

“We live in a remarkable time with respect to student data,” Cannon said, adding that the data “appears to tell us some really powerful stories about the impact of financial aid on completion in particular,” especially as it relates to state aid.

“There is clearly no perfect solution … it’s balancing a lot of these levers,” he said, adding that the limited funds states have forces policymakers to have conversations about the best uses for higher education aid. 

Sandy Baum, senior fellow at The Urban Institute, said that while many state aid programs were designed to increase access to higher education, “we’ve discovered that just giving money to these students is not enough.” Instead, state aid programs should focus on providing incentives and support to students, especially low-income and non-traditional students.

“We have to really think about how we can support students to study in ways and pursue education in ways that increase their probability of success without excluding students,” Baum said. 

For example, research has shown that early notification of financial aid can be effective in encouraging young students to pursue higher education, but researchers and policymakers need to figure out how such programs can be used to support older students who need to make decisions about their education more quickly, Baum said.


Publication Date: 4/30/2015

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