Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Good News for Students Amid Coronavirus: College May Be More Affordable Than Ever

By Guest Blogger — August 26, 2020 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This week Brendan Bell and Cody Christensen take over Straight Up to share some reflections on what it’s like to be starting graduate school this coronavirus fall. Both have just stepped away from hugely successful turns on my AEI Education team. Brendan was a high school social studies teacher before serving as my program manager and is now starting up as a law student at the University of Pennsylvania. After three years with AEI’s Center on Higher Education Reform, Cody is entering the Ph.D. program in education policy at Vanderbilt. Drawing on their experience in ed. policy, Cody and Brendan will talk about returning to school amidst a global pandemic and the various issues it raises.

—Rick

For all of the negative ramifications the pandemic has had on America’s higher education system, there is at least one piece of good news for college students: Lawmakers have greatly expanded federal student-aid programs. And in the years ahead, it seems likely that such generosity will increase. In fact, from a financial standpoint, now might be the best possible time for students to go to college.

Consider the sequence of events that have transpired since the beginning of the pandemic. In late-March, Congress passed the CARES Act that suspended payments on federal student loans and waived all interest through the end of September. Earlier this month, President Trump signed an executive order to extend these policies through at least the end of the year. Some observers have speculated that policymakers will continue to kick the can down the road using executive action, potentially waiving interest indefinitely.

How much will this save borrowers? Our back-of-the-envelope calculation using data from the Department of Education shows that first-year undergraduate borrowers can expect to save an average of $500 if interest is waived for an entire year. A typical fourth-year undergraduate borrower can expect to save more—approximately $2,000, on average—from a year of waived interest.

But interest waivers are far from the only new financial benefit available this fall. A number of elite universities—including Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Princeton, and others— modified their fall plans to limit in-person learning but offered tuition discounts to students in return. These discounts typically ranged from 10 percent to 15 percent off the overall price, but some universities (including less-selective colleges) offered tuition discounts in excess of 30 percent or more. Other colleges waived or refunded student-activity fees, which currently average $1,885 per year at public four-year colleges.

That’s not all. Policymakers recently raised the maximum Pell Grant, expanded the generosity of 529 college-savings accounts, and increased emergency financial aid to students. While colleges face extreme budget crunches due to cuts in state funding, reduced tuition revenue, and stalled auxiliary services, students themselves have access to many federal financial-aid programs that collectively aim to keep college affordability in reach.

Of course, none of this suggests that all students will be financially better off attending college this year. The economic downturn from COVID-19 means some families have fewer resources to pay for higher education. Students who have lost their jobs or are struggling to find work will clearly need extra supports. Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions (or those that have family members with pre-existing conditions) may experience greater difficulties financing their studies. And some students attend institutions that actually increased tuition prices this year.

But even for these individuals, things appear to be looking up. Trump has demonstrated a clear willingness to use executive orders to expand federal student-aid programs—even without the support of Congress. Joe Biden has proposed cutting student-loan payments in half through the federal government’s income-based repayment program. Biden also supports progressive plans to cancel $10,000 in federal student debt for every borrower. Regardless of who is president next year, it seems likely that students should expect more support from the federal government in 2021.

Setting aside questions of whether these are wise or well-targeted policies, one this is clear: Students have reason for optimism. Students now have access to expanded federal financial-aid programs that will make college more affordable than it otherwise would be under normal circumstances. While the online format of the fall might leave much to be desired, the expansion in federal-aid policies does not.

— Cody & Brendan

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP