Barriers to Higher Education: Finding Accessibility and Affordability in College Pricing

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Managing Editor

High sticker prices and a lack of clarity in how the cost of college is actually calculated leaves many students — particularly from low-income households — stumped when it comes to determining if a given program is accessible to their financial realities.

The Brookings Institution dug into this conversation on Monday, with a focus on college pricing, by hosting a discussion on the economics of higher education with Phillip Levine, a nonresident fellow of economic studies at Brookings’ Center on Children and Families, as well as a panel of higher education experts to cover a number of policy solutions looking to address institutional barriers.

In discussing his newly released book, Levine looked to underscore the need to demystify the sticker pricing of higher education, where growing concerns over affordability lead many prospective students to overlook more affordable options available to them.

Levine cited a number of headlines from the past 50 years all warning of the impending threat that rising college costs posed to socioeconomic mobility. But this cataclysmic expectation is not becoming a reality, he argued, noting that college is often more attainable than students and their families think.

These warped expectations though, according to Levine, are creating issues for students because many are failing to understand that the sticker price of a given institution is not the actual cost of what most students would pay.

In order to better inform prospective students about the real costs of a higher education, Levine outlined a “financial aid information funnel” that would give students a better idea of what aid they might receive earlier in the application process. By providing a broad estimation of aid and net price before high school, more students would move away from focusing solely on the sticker price and would not be deterred from applying for financial aid.

The other way that policymakers can improve upon access to higher education would be to double the Pell Grant, Levine said.

“It’s the right amount of money for the right people, the right students,” Levine said.

The panel discussion incorporated a group of higher education experts that dug further into the complexity of the college admissions process that has undergone significant changes due to the pandemic.

Lindsay Page, an associate professor at Brown University, discussed how the test-optional movement in admissions is further complicating the system because while schools might not need those test scores, they could still have applicability for merit-based scholarships. This change in the process could lead to students unknowingly losing out on funds they otherwise might have had access to.

Panelists also discussed how investments in childhood education could help make the pathway to higher education less daunting and that students could then be better prepared for navigating how to pay for college.


Publication Date: 5/13/2022

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