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Reporting on College Affordability? Keep 3 Lessons in Mind.

The Education Department’s James Kvaal speaks about the future of higher education and the Biden administration’s role.

Photo credit: James Minichello, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

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As education journalists analyze new federal higher education proposals and the continuing public debate about student loan forgiveness, a panel featuring a top U.S. Department of Education official offers some lessons to keep in mind.

James Kvaal, the department’s under secretary, expressed optimism about the future of higher education while emphasizing the need for more conversations about college affordability. Kvaal spoke with The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Senior Reporter Eric Kelderman during the “Eye on Federal Higher Education Policy” panel at the Education Writers Association’s 2022 National Seminar on July 25.

“College costs really vary widely,” Kvaal said. “The college cost issues facing a community college student are quite different than the issues facing an upper middle class student at a private college. There’s no easy answer.”

The Biden administration has tried to address some specific concerns of student loan borrowers, including those who claimed they were defrauded by their college. In total, the administration has already approved more than $27 billion in student loan relief for close to 1.4 million people through executive action, according to a recent news release. The department announced proposed regulations on July 26 related to how for-profit institutions recruit veterans and service members, how changes in ownership at higher education institutions play out and how incarcerated people can access federal Pell Grants.

Reporters can combine local insights about their community colleges and four-year universities along with a deep understanding of how the federal government plays a role in college affordability. Here are three tips to consider:

Credit: James Minichello, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

1. Define What Makes a Successful Higher Education Institution.

Schools have historically been considered excellent if they were exclusive, Kelderman said. But now, he added, there is a movement toward investing in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and ensuring students are completing their degrees on time.

Kvaal said there are several ways to assess the success of higher education institutions, especially when considering where middle class families will send their students. People considering college should use the College Scorecard to see graduation rates, loan amounts and potential earnings per program, Kvaal said.

“It is often tempting for these institutions to chase more research dollars, to chase higher US News rankings, and [Education] Secretary [Miguel] Cardona’s point is ‘There’s more than one way to be excellent.’ And if you are thinking about what your local community needs, it may be that you can best serve your community by being inclusive, by being affordable, by driving the local economy. And that may not show up in the US News rankings, but it is something that we should recognize and grant prestige to.”

2. Think Beyond Tuition Costs.

Student loan collections are expected to resume in September although a recent report by POLITICO shows department officials have draft plans for how it would carry out widespread student loan forgiveness. There is continuous pressure from progressive lawmakers, civil rights groups and others for President Joe Biden to forgive at least $10,000 in debt for borrowers. Kvaal said the department continues to study if it “can cancel some amount of all student loans.” But even if the administration cancels the debt, there are broader concerns about how to ensure a new generation does not just end up with a bunch of debt themselves.

“So fundamentally, there’s a real challenge in the way that we’re financing college. And if you believe, as I do, that our country badly needs vehicles for upward mobility and for equitable opportunity, and higher education is one of our most important institutions achieving those goals,” Kvaal said. “But then you have in many cases, student debt draining those benefits away from young people. And in some cases, you have people who are worse off than if they had never gone to college at all. So we need to think very differently about how we’re financing higher education.”

Whether a blanket forgiveness policy happens or not, the Biden administration is committed to other actions on dealing with the affordability crisis, Kvaal told the EWA audience. While Biden had campaigned on free community college, that goal has yet to be achieved.

Kvaal also highlighted other priorities, including investing in Historically Black Colleges and Universities and minority-serving institutions, doubling the Pell Grant and making student loans more affordable.

Some states have taken efforts to broaden access to community college.

State lawmakers also appropriate money for college and university operations, grant programs and state student aid.

The Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect last-dollar scholarship programs provide two years of free tuition to any of the state’s community or technical colleges after other financial aid is applied. In Michigan, adults 25 and older may attend a community college within their community college district tuition-free.

Still, Kvaal cautioned against the idea that tuition is the only barrier. Living expenses, transportation and meals are other costs associated with attending college or university.

3. Understand the College Affordability Crisis and Related Issues.

In early July, the department released a proposal for regulations related to several items, including the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and how students who were lied to by their colleges can get their loans discharged. These stories may seem more in the weeds or complicated than the broader canceling debt conversation but still have important consequences. The public can currently comment on the proposals, and the Biden administration hopes to finalize the rules in the fall, so they can go into effect by July 1, 2023.

If reporters are writing about college affordability, they can also remind their audiences about when student loan collections are expected to resume.

“There’s no question that it will be a big challenge,” Kvaal said. “Motivating 35 million people and reaching them is a big challenge. It’s a big job – Maybe one of the biggest the Department of Education has undertaken in its history,” Kvaal said.