Solving the Affordability Puzzle

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about The College Completion Summit held at the University of Utah on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2019. The title of this panel was “Innovative financial and affordability solutions.” Panel members included: Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah; Bridgette Cram, assistant vice president for Academic and Student Affairs at Florida International University; Shannon Goodman, vice president for Enrollment at the University of North Texas; and Jorge Pérez, associate vice president of the University of Tennessee. The moderator was Beth Akers of the Manhattan Institute.

Students heading off to college these days, notes Beth Akers, don’t look like the ones in old movies, loading a suitcase and bedspread into their parents’ car and driving away towards a coming-of-age story.

“Quite simply,” said Akers, an economist with the Manhattan Institute, “our students today are not children.” Nearly a quarter of them work full time and an equal number have children of their own. A third are over the age of 25.

Changing demographics—and the financial burdens they impose—are a major reason why students are taking longer to graduate college or are giving up completely, agreed panelists who shared the stage at the College Completion Summit hosted by the University of Utah and Lumina Foundation. The good news, they said, is that universities across the country are coming up with strategies to ease those burdens.

“We’re working at reducing failure points along the way,” said Shannon Goodman, vice-president for enrollment at the University of North Texas. One strategy: Figuring out a way to keep struggling students continuously enrolled. That includes a lock-in tuition rate for all four years and an incentive of a $100-a-credit-hour discount for winter, spring and summer if a student takes 15 credit-hours in the fall.

At the University of Utah, according to President Ruth Watkins, students are “quite debt averse,” which often leads them to go to school for a year, take off a year to work, and repeat the cycle. “What we observed was that a significant number of students quit after year three, or even year four. Or they take three years to finish that last year.”

To help, the U is launching a tuition-assistance program for seniors, with repayment based on 2.85 percent of the student’s future salary. The pilot program is supported by a $6 million fund from “investors who are long-term friends of the university,” said Watkins. Easing the investors’ minds: Utahns have “a very low default rate.”

In the University of Tennessee system, strategies include a “last-year scholarship” that requires mentoring and eight hours of community service. The “UT Promise,” said Jorge Pérez, associate vice president for academic affairs and student success, will launch in the fall of 2020.

At Florida International University, where half of its 56,000 students receive government-funded Pell Grants, one approach to keeping students in school includes helping them through financial emergencies when the exigencies of life—from hurricanes to tooth aches—make staying the course difficult.

“Our research shows that the average award is $1,000 and it really does make a difference,” said Bridgette Cram, assistant vice president for academic and student affairs. Over 97% of the students who have received emergency funds have either graduated or are still in school. The process is time-intensive, she said, and is decided on a case-by-case basis.

One key to success, she added, is getting the word out to students through course syllabi and via student ambassadors, because students are often shy or embarrassed about asking for help.

“One of the things we’re trying to get better at,” noted University of North Texas’s Goodman, “is knowing the signs” of student financial distress before it tempts students to quit school.