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College Affordability Is About More Than Managing Tuition Costs

There is bipartisan recognition that students need to be encouraged to attend and graduate from college. Whether the concern is rooted in fears about America’s position in the global economy, or founded in reducing systemic inequality—there’s a convincing argument to be made that we need more college graduates to move forward as a society.

But while we all agree that a college education will drastically transform the trajectory of our country, there is still the issue of cost to take into account, and the opportunity to attend college—whether you graduate or not—has a lot to do with how much money your parents already have.

"[Over the past four decades], the percentage of Americans in the top income quartile who had attained a baccalaureate degree by age 24 rose an estimated 31 points: from 40.2 percent to 71.2 percent," notes Arizona State University President Michael Crow. "In contrast, during the same four decades, baccalaureate attainment rates for the lowest income quartile increased only 4.2 points: from 6.2 percent to 10.4 percent."

By those margins, students from affluent families are still 60.8 percent more likely to attend college than those from poor families--at a time when it is more crucial than ever to have a college degree.

Greater access to college will address the widening skills gap present in nearly every industry in the U.S. "In the past, unemployment was inexorably tied to a shortage of jobs," Fortune author Elisabeth A. Mason notes. Referencing a landmark Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce study, she continues, "Today, that's no longer necessarily the case: unemployment and underemployment are too commonly a mismatch between the skills required to fill a job and a workforce lacking those skills." A multidisciplinary education is key to correcting the existing 'mismatch.'

It's no surprise then that college affordability, access, and reform have been major key points on the 2016 presidential campaign trail, especially in the Democratic primaries. While Bernie Sanders has called for free tuition at public universities, the presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton has similarly called for debt-free education. And while talks of education reform have been quiet on the Republican side, it seems as though presumptive nominee Donald Trump will be announcing his plans for education reform shortly.

But dealing with inflated tuition costs is only half the battle, as any successful reform plan must also consider factors outside of tuition, such as child care, commuter expenses, meal insecurities, and balancing their jobs with their schoolwork.

As Mason notes later, the reason for this is simple. "The typical college student is no longer the 18-year old freshman from the suburbs, living in the dorm on campus. A majority of students today are what is known as 'non-traditional:' they are older, they have kids, they hold down full time jobs while pursuing their course work." In fact, for the majority of school students, who raise children and work 20-40 hours a week, it is no longer enough to make tuition cheap.
What's more, are the slew of students who don't even consider the possibility of attending college, because the costs of attendance are unrealistic when compared to their already existing economic burden.

While a viable solution hasn't been reached on the political front, there are a number of universities who are taking educational reform into their own hands--perhaps most notably, is the aforementioned Arizona State University. Under the leadership of president Crow, the university has radically expanded access to underprivileged students, and they've done so without diminishing the quality of instruction.

In what is now referred to as "The New Gold Standard" for American Universities, Crow has continuously advocated for innovation at the university level, and in doing so reaching a whole new demographic of students who might not have previously considered college. In fact, since Crow's appointment in 2002, minority enrollment has increased by over 62 percent.

Recently, the university unveiled its Global Freshman Academy, MOOC style courses that allows potential freshman students to explore, learn, and complete courses before paying for credit. The school has also recently partnered with Starbucks, ensuring that full time employees of the franchise receive free tuition in qualifying ASU online degree programs. And their ever expanding surplus of online degree programs and certificates ensures that students from all walks of life are able to receive an affordable, quality education. Innovation at the university level is only bound to increase and benefit students under Crow's leadership.

If America is to overcome the widening skills gap, and make college degrees as commonplace as high school diplomas were a generation ago, hurdles to educational access must be overcome. Students not only need to be able to pay for their tuition, but also have incentive enough to continue their education. It's time that policy makers took notice.

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