Speaking the Same Language Key To Progess in Higher Education Debate

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As issues surrounding higher education swirl into national political conversations, the benefit of discussing the impact of finances on education in a broader spotlight is often offset by competing viewpoints on the importance of education or even a basic agreement on where money comes into play for those continuing their education after high school. A recent article from the Center for American Progress points out that the issue often isn’t the content of the argument, but frequently how the conversation is framed that leads to confusion about issues surrounding financial issues as they apply to college.

Here are a few tips that help clarify where students and families (not to mention politicians and newsmakers) might not be speaking the same language when it comes to college:

“Price” vs. “Cost.” One of the most frequent areas of concern as the advocacy for more affordable education (and the backlash against it) grows, is understanding the bottom line in terms of dollars and cents. Where some obsess over the “cost” of tuition, that amount accounts for less than half of what students pay in order to attend college at certain institutions. Tuition costs for in-state students attending a four-year college, accounted for almost 40 percent of the total student budget in 2014, not factoring in the cost of books and supplies, housing and transportation. Students at public two-year colleges faced almost 70 percent of their expenses coming in non-tuition areas. So while the “cost” of tuition may be affordable in many areas, other necessary costs in the true “price” can impact students completing their studies with as little debt as possible.

College students are not kids. Increasingly, more adults are returning to college to continue or complete their education. Today, 4 out every 10 students enrolled in colleges and universities are older than age 25. In community colleges, it’s closer to 50 percent. The impact of assuming that college students come exclusively from high school ignores that many undergraduate students are actually working adults who face very different issues based where they are in life. Frequently, this means juggling multiple roles in their lives (parent, spouse, worker) that can impact their ability to engage with education in the same way as someone just starting life as an adult.

Knowing the difference in financial aid options. Students of all ages often find themselves confused over the difference between loans, grants and other types of student aid. So it is only natural that many politicians or those not dealing with college finance issues on a daily basis might use the two terms interchangeably. Grants and scholarships are considered aid for students because they do not have to be repaid. Loans are debts that come with interest and students must repay them. While having loans, and other similar products, available is a benefit to students, they are not part of “aid,” which policymakers might inadvertently use as an overarching term that includes both grants and loans. Referring to loans as aid can mislead students about what the term really means. As a result, they may not have a clear understanding of what they owe when they finish college.


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