What college students think about higher education policy
What college students think about higher education policy

Politicians often purport to represent the interests of students when they propose education policies. So do college leaders and associations when they take stands in response. But do they truly know what students want and need?

Perhaps not. Pervasive paternalism exists at many colleges and universities, with officials thinking they “understand the student experience better than students do,” says Mark Huelsman, a policy fellow at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.

Results of the latest Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan, show how passionate students are about a variety of state and federal policies, particularly those related to paying for college. Ninety percent of 2,035 respondents representing 113 colleges and universities are in support of free community college, even though only 250 students in the sample actually attend community colleges, for example.

“This is another set of evidence that we should listen to students not just about what they’re experiencing but also about how they think we should fix [issues],” says Huelsman, who is a student loan justice fellow at the Student Borrower Protection Center as well. “Whether it’s issues of affordability or safety or an understanding of fairly complex issues in admissions, students might get it more than an administrator might think.”

Students of color are even more likely to support free community college and other college affordability and student debt-related policy efforts. As Huelsman points out, Black and Latinx students tend to struggle most to pay for and benefit from college. In other words, “Those most likely affected by policy changes or lack of policy changes are most supportive of ways to fix the issues,” he says.

Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza, the 2021-22 student regent serving on the University of California Board of Regents, says the high cost of college and its impacts come up in student conversation. “We’re going to talk about policy as if it’s our lives, and it is,” says Zaragoza, a geography major at UC Berkeley who initially attended Modesto Junior College and identifies as Indigenous Native and Hispanic.

In her experience, campus leaders tend to hear most from politically engaged students but aren’t as aware of what comes up in everyday conversation. Zaragoza believes community college leaders tend to know about students’ needs but they don’t have the funding to help, while four-year institution officials have some resources but must make tough decisions about what to fund. “If you talk about it, you have to do something about it,” she says. “They’re only talking about it when they’re ready to deal with it.”

One issue on her system’s radar is how, even with the California College Promise Program offering two years of free community college tuition to qualifying students, many are emerging with lots of debt. Only 4 percent of California community college students are transferring to four-year institutions after two years of enrollment, and even after six years only 38 percent have transferred, a 2017 report found. Community college students in the state may be paying $36,000 to $38,000 more to obtain a bachelor's degree compared to a student enrolling directly at a four-year college.

“Even with free community college, we have a lot to do,” says Zaragoza, who is an advocate for expanding programs to cover the full cost of attendance and also for making four-year public colleges free. “It’s working, but we have so many issues with poverty and income inequality by race and gender. We need to keep setting the bar higher -- get students in, and get them out with less debt.” A 2017 UC Berkeley housing survey found that 10 percent of undergrads had experienced homelessness at some point since arriving at the university.

The Student Voice survey, conducted from June 22 to 29, also found that:

  • Students are more likely to support up to $10,000 in student loan forgiveness (about three-quarters) compared to $50,000 in forgiveness (less than two-thirds).
  • The majority of students support increased access to Pell Grants for several groups, with Pell Grants for more vocational programs getting more support than Pell Grants for DACA students or incarcerated students.
  • About two-thirds of students strongly support race-blind admissions, while a little more than half strongly support the banning of legacy admissions, indicating a desire for admissions based on individual merits.

Only 27 percent of students in the survey sample report following current events very closely, with the majority, 57 percent, following somewhat closely. Yet responses to individual questions are largely unaffected by the level of attention students pay. This may suggest how widely known many education policy proposals are and that students need not know details to have a strong opinion on legislation.

Political leanings, on the other hand, make a huge difference in support for many proposed policies. Most notable is the divide between Democrats and Republicans on supporting Pell Grants for students who are protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Other ideas with a sizable divide include Pell Grants for incarcerated students, forgiveness for student loans and free four-year college.

Here’s a closer look at survey results by policies related to making college more affordable and making admissions more equitable.

Financing College

More than half of students surveyed selected academic scholarships or federal student loans as ways they are financing their college education, and nearly half are using their own savings or current earnings. So strong support for legislation to make paying for college easier is not surprising.

“We as a community are right to be focusing efforts on our students financing their education,” says Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Response to this question, she adds, “really highlights the importance and urgency of that.”

Students over all are more supportive of free community college compared to free four-year college proposals -- but both are desirable.

“It makes sense to me that students would be interested in the federal government providing more than just K-12 education,” says Coval.

Perhaps some students show preference toward only two years of free college because it’s been talked about most and is “just part of the rhetoric,” says Rachel Fishman, deputy director of research for the Higher Education Initiative at the left-leaning think tank New America. In a recent New America survey, free college came out as the policy Americans liked most, with a tie between two-year and four-year degrees being covered.

“A lot of colleges describe students as living on the knife’s edge,” says Tom Green, associate executive director for consulting and strategic enrollment management at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, adding that community college students are especially vulnerable to mishaps that would take them out of school.

While free college programs remove a barrier, not everyone can benefit, and “there’s still more work to do,” he says, including ensuring progress is made toward a high-quality credential. “You pour more water into the sieve and more is leaking out. It’s not that completion has gone way up as a result of free community college.”

Both free community college and free four-year college programs are more desirable to community college students than to four-year students, and responses are about equal from students at public colleges compared to private nonprofit institutions, even though education at the latter institutions would not be supported.

Besides students of color standing out as major proponents of free college programs, those with New England hometowns are the most likely geographic group showing strong support. Huelsman guesses that may be because college is so expensive in that region, state funding of higher ed tends to be weak and political demographics generally support progressive policy.

Although political leaning impacts support for free college, with much more favor from Democrats, the majority of Republican respondents do at least somewhat support both free community college and $10,000 in loan forgiveness, another popular concept for students over all.

Ninety percent of students support loan forgiveness of up to $10,000 at least somewhat, while 81 percent indicate at least some support for $50,000 in forgiveness.

Sophie Nguyen, a policy analyst for New America’s Higher Education Initiative, believes the stronger support for a lesser amount may be because students “think one policy may be more feasible than the other.”

Or perhaps students imagine people taking advantage of a $50,000 threshold, says Anna Sassaman, a political science major entering her senior year at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. “I never even thought of student loan forgiveness as an alternative to free college.”

Policies involving Pell Grant expansion seem like a good idea to most students, even though the numbers expressing strong support are lower than for free college and loan forgiveness. Students support, at least somewhat, Pell Grants for more types of vocational programs (95 percent), for DACA students (89 percent) and for students who are incarcerated (84 percent).

“I thought it was really impressive to see those numbers,” says Coval. “Students answering the question presumably aren’t in those situations, so they see the Pell Grant as what it was meant to be, a help for lowest-income students. That’s a recognition that this is an important gateway program.”

College Prep and Admissions

One factor in getting in and through college on time is to have a career goal in mind. HR 5092, the Counseling for Career Choice Act, introduced in 2019 and in committee since then, would offer grants to states for the development of comprehensive career counseling frameworks in middle and high schools. When asked about the concept of having mandatory career counseling in high schools, half of students in the Student Voice survey strongly support the idea, and an additional one-third somewhat support it.

Huelsman, who would have anticipated even stronger support, surmises that the mandatory part may have stopped more students from supporting strongly. Or, he says, “they may believe that career counseling is something you do in college, when getting toward the finish line.”

Fishman could imagine students thinking such a program may not be useful at that stage of life, since college exposes them to many more career possibilities. “No way did I even know what a think tank was until I got to college,” she shares of her own career decision making.

On the admissions front, Student Voice respondents lean heavily toward policies that keep race and legacy status out of the admissions process. “People don’t like the idea about admissions preferences,” says Fishman. “They want to believe people get in based on their own merits.”

Two-thirds of students over all strongly support race-blind admissions. The majority of both Republicans and Democrats strongly support it, with Republicans more likely to do so. Of the 326 students in the survey who said they don’t follow current events very closely, 71 percent strongly support it, slightly higher than students over all. Two-year students are also more likely to strongly support it, at 79 percent.

Community college students are also more likely than their four-year peers to strongly support the banning of legacy admissions, as are students attending public colleges compared to those at private colleges. Of students in the full survey sample, just over half strongly support doing away with family alumni influence, and an additional one-quarter somewhat support that idea.

A New America poll first asked about legacy admissions right after the Varsity Blues scandal, with public opinion being strongly against the idea, says Fishman. The following year, “opinion on it improved somewhat,” she notes, adding that legacy admissions “absolutely happens at public schools” as well.

But legacy being practiced less at public institutions or people not even knowing it exists there might account for the greater support for banning it by students at public colleges, says Green.

When he worked at an institution with a huge legacy population, “we didn’t hear a lot of pushback from students about the legacy part,” Green says. Plus, it only meant that the team “might take a pause before we rejected you. It wasn’t like a trump card you could play.”

Generally, Green doesn’t think it’s good policy for states to get involved in admissions practices at such a specific level, he says. “I would hope that our own profession would do a better job of looking at practices and policies.”

Test-optional ACT or SAT college applications -- a common institution-level practice that is becoming a state-level policy option -- also has strong student support, with more than eight in 10 supporting it at least somewhat. By racial group, Black and Latinx students are most likely to strongly support; Asian students are least likely to do so.

“I’ve noticed a lot of conversation about underlying discriminatory practices with those exams,” says Sassaman, who recently completed an internship in a state senator's office. “There isn’t a lot of favor among people my age.” She has also heard peers argue that a generalized test doesn’t seem appropriate when one is applying for a more specific academic program.

In a New America survey, students in particular but Americans in general are in “favor of test-optional policies moving forward,” says Fishman. She finds that interesting, in light of the fact that people also don’t want demographic group preferences. “People see the SAT as a test that you can take and if you get a good score you can go to any college you want to. Should we ask a question about whether GPA should be included? Is that our next step? What if people don’t feel good about that?”

Zaragoza, who used to serve on the University of California system’s Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools, was part of “the lucky group asked to determine if UC should replace the SAT with our own exam,” she says, adding that she learned how individual questions on similar tests can have vast differences in performance by demographic group. “My personal opinion is a strong no on that front.” (The group’s recommendation? Also no.)

For Green, the question admissions professionals and the public might ask as practices get nixed is this: What are you doing instead? And if the answer is holistic admissions processes, that is problematic. “Holistic is like a big blanket. I’m concerned it might be more inequitable than tests.”

Show of Support

Having a clear idea of what policies students favor can lead to more effective advocacy. But Nguyen of New America notes that survey data, even from individual institutions, are “just a reference point” and are not necessarily being used to guide decision making -- especially during a time when bigger decisions (when and how to reopen campuses, for example) are top of mind.

Huelsman suggests that higher ed leaders think big about policy. “Given the pretty broad support among the people most affected by major policy changes, college administrators can feel comfortable advocating for state or federal legislators to be fairly bold about, for example, how we finance college. If you’re a student-focused administrator, at the end of the day, your lens is on students.”

Student-focused action on the college affordability crisis is not just for legislators, Fishman says. “The bottom line is that students want lower costs, and there are steps colleges can take to make that a reality. You can take a look at your own admissions and aid policies and provide some relief right now, while everything is getting sorted at the state and federal level.”

Sassaman says students notice when their university is taking action that supports student preferences. “That creates an image that colleges are not just trying to profit off of you. They are places for you to grow -- and advocate for what you want.”



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