How to Make Education Affordable and Accessible

Failure to act now could lead to a shortfall of skilled workers

Expanding access to college coursework in high school would help students earn college credit or even an associate degree at little to no cost, write Reps. Bera and Polis. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Expanding access to college coursework in high school would help students earn college credit or even an associate degree at little to no cost, write Reps. Bera and Polis. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted September 14, 2016 at 5:00am

Education serves as the great equalizer and foundation of our economy. It is where opportunity begins in an increasingly complex and global economy.

From preschool to graduate school, education fuels businesses and ensures sustainable economic growth by providing the groundwork for students to learn the skills necessary to participate and compete in the global workforce.

By 2020, estimates say that 65 percent of jobs will require some form of education beyond high school, according to a study conducted at Georgetown University.  

To meet the needs of the 21st century economy, education beyond a high school diploma — whether attained at a trade school, community college, or university — must be affordable and accessible for everyone. If we do not act now, experts project a shortfall of skilled workers to fill jobs.

This past spring, thousands of young students across the country graduated from high school with plans of continuing their education. Along with those students is a growing pool of people who plan to go back to school after years of employment. The latter group typically attends part time, working or even raising a family while balancing their studies. 

For both groups though, paying for an education can be daunting, if not prohibitive.  The cost of a degree has skyrocketed, and debt has followed. Student debt accounts for the largest growing debt in the nation at $1.3 trillion. Per student, the average debt load is now $28,950.

As members of the New Democrat Coalition in Congress, we are moving forward policies to address affordability for beginning, continuing, and returning students. 

For students who began or are continuing high school this fall, there’s no reason to wait. We should expand access to college coursework in high school, allowing students to earn college credits, or even an associate degree, at little to no cost. Access to these “dual enrollment” programs needs to be more consistent throughout the nation and should not be determined by zip code.     

We can also help students by expanding the federal financial aid program through increasing the maximum Pell grant. Pell grants are given to low-income students to help cover the cost of tuition, but the maximum Pell grant has not kept up with the rising cost of college. 

Not only that, Pell grants can only be used during fall and spring semesters, even though many more students are taking or want to take summer courses. Boosting the size of the Pell grant and providing recipients with more flexibility is an easy way to increase accessibility and degree attainment for students.

We should also acknowledge all of the costs beyond just tuition. Textbooks can cost up to $1,200 a year alone, a significant expense for families. We can eliminate that cost altogether through open-source textbooks, which are collaboratively created, openly licensed, and free to use.

To fuel the economy, we need students to achieve a variety of certificates and degrees. Whether you go to work in a factory or an office park, many job opportunities require additional skills. 

For some students, that could come from short-term certifications and “boot camps.” Many education “boot camps” teach coding skills and graduate students in about 16 weeks.  At the best “boot camps,” nearly every student finds full-time work shortly after graduating. 

We can make these programs more accessible by addressing the cost, potentially through federal financial aid, for schools that demonstrate the highest standards, and we applaud the Obama administration for taking the first step with their pending EQUIP (Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships) grant program.

There is no doubt that a certificate or degree is one of the most powerful tools for upward mobility. 

The median earnings for a person with a bachelor’s degree are 74 percent higher than for a person with only a high school diploma, equating to about a million dollars over the course of a career.

By strengthening the link between high schools and the workplace, and investing more effectively in career and entrepreneurial training, New Democrat Coalition members have proposed smart, innovative policies to ensure everyone has an opportunity to thrive in the modern economy.

As members of Congress and the New Democrat Coalition, we share a passion for education.  We know that the strength of our nation lies in its people and communities, so let’s arm them with the tools they need to be successful.

Rep. Ami Bera of California is a member of the New Democrat Coalition. Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado serves as vice chairman of the coalition and is a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.