Stop telling students they can’t afford college

One question we often hear is: “Is college affordable?” I believe the answer for most Americans is, “yes.” For millions, two years of college is free. For most students, four years at a public university is affordable and these include some of the best colleges and universities in the world.

It is never easy to pay for college, but it is easier than many think and it is unfair and untrue to make students think that they can’t, and I believe we should stop telling students so. That said, there are five steps the federal government can take to keep college affordable and prevent students from borrowing more than they need to.

Four weeks ago, I spoke at the graduation of more than 800 students from Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. Half of those students are low-income. For many, their two years of college were free, or nearly free, because taxpayers provided them a Pell grant of up to $5,730 for low-income students and the average community college tuition is about $3,300.

So, for the nearly four of ten undergraduate students in our country who attend two-year institutions, college is affordable — especially in Tennessee, where community college is free for every high school graduate.

Another 38 percent of undergraduate students go to public four-year colleges and universities where the average tuition is about $9,000. At the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, one third of students have a Pell Grant. And, 98 percent of in-state freshmen have a state Hope Scholarship, which provides up to $3,500 annually for the first two years and up to $4,500 for the next two.

So, for most students a public university is affordable.

Nevertheless, it is true that college costs have been rising and that a growing number of students are having trouble paying back their debt. According to the Department of Education, about 7 million, or 17 percent, of federal student loan borrowers are in default – meaning they haven’t made a payment on their loans in at least nine months.

I propose five steps the federal government should take to keep the costs of college affordable and to discourage students from borrowing more than they can pay back:

No. 1: Stop discouraging colleges from counseling students about how much they should borrow.

No. 2: Help students save money by graduating sooner.

No. 3: Make it simpler to pay off student loans.

No. 4: Require colleges to share in the risk of lending to students.

No. 5: Point the finger at Congress as a cause of higher college costs.

For example, Chancellor Nick Zeppos of Vanderbilt University co-chaired a report on higher education rules and regulations commissioned by a bipartisan group of senators and said that colleges and universities in this country are ensnared in a “jungle of red tape” that increases college costs and forces them to raise tuition.

Congress should take steps to make college more affordable, but should also stop the misleading rhetoric that causes so many students and families to believe that they can’t afford it.

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