3 Dangerous Student Aid Myths: What Higher Education Leaders Can Do to Debunk Them

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Unless you live in a cave, you've seen the alarming headlines highlighting "exploding" college costs and "crushing" student loan debt. Because the media is trying to grab readers' attention, these articles often use the most startling cases of these serious problems without providing context needed to fully understand the complexity of these issues. A simple internet search reveals the prevalence of these types of articles. Here are just a few recent headlines:

* College Costs and Student Debt Explode?

* Student Loans May Be 'Next Debt Bomb' for Economy

* Student Loan Debt Is Crushing America's Senior Citizens

* Staggering Law School Debts Will Lead to Exploding Debt

Disaster for Graduates and Taxpayers

The aim here is not to trivialize the challenge students and families face when trying to pay for college or repay loans. These are serious issues that merit serious debate and real solutions. But it's important to take a realistic look at the college access and affordability challenges we face to encourage a thoughtful and practical debate based on facts.

While these articles effectively accomplish their goal of grabbing readers' attention, they do a poor job of informing the public of the complex interplay between the many economic, demographic, and technological factors driving up the cost of college and student loan borrowing.

Unfortunately, a more accurate headline, such as "A Complex Combination of Economic Factors Increases College Costs and Loan Debt for Certain Students," just isn't as effective in grabbing readers' attention as headlines that suggest increasing college costs and student loan debt will cause immediate and devastating economic and societal damage.

Articles framed in that way hinder serious, rational debate on these issues. Worse, these articles make it appear as though we've already reached a point of no return on college access and affordability. They identify and then condemn a few factors for causing these trends and appeal to readers' emotions, making it more difficult to have a discussion based on empirical evidence.

This type of "hit and ruff' reporting uses hyperbole to distill complex issues into convenient sound bites that can create or reinforce myths and misconceptions. These myths are then adopted as facts and are regularly used by lawmakers and policymakers to develop and push higher education and student aid policy.

Following are three dangerous myths about student aid that are regularly used by policymakers to push misguided policies--and what higher ed officials must know to debunk them.

1. Increases in student aid drive up college costs.

This myth is a cornerstone of House Republicans' FY2013 budget resolution, and it is often referred to in House and Senate hearings on student aid and the cost of college. Lawmakers will cite this myth when justifying proposals to cut federal student aid spending.

Unfortunately, this myth is prevalent because it offers a seemingly simple, easy to understand explanation for what is really a multifaceted issue. It is much easier to blame student aid than to explain the complex interplay of numerous factors that actually influence college costs.

A report issued by House Republicans to accompany their FY2013 Budget Resolution maintains that "the decisions of colleges and universities to raise their prices would have been constrained if the federal government had not stepped in so often to subsidize rising tuitions." To address this issue, the budget resolution proposes limiting the growth of financial aid and focusing funds on low-income students to "force schools to reform and adapt." Essentially, the budget resolution would reduce federal funding for student aid by eliminating student loan subsidies and limiting student eligibility for Pell Grants and other federal aid.

But this theory is not founded in reality. …