Even small savings can improve college access (opinion)

For many college students, one positive impact of the pandemic has been access to cost savings and additional financial assistance made possible through a variety of federal grants and institutional assistance programs. Many institutions also waived fees, temporarily waived fees for some services, or waived outstanding balances.

Students want these programs to continue, according to a recent survey conducted by Student Voice Within the Higher Ed and College Pulse (supported by Kaplan). A majority (57 percent) of the 2,001 undergraduate students surveyed believe universities should permanently waive application fees, with black students more likely than white students (61 percent vs. 54 percent) to think universities should do so. It’s no wonder students want a fee break, considering public four-year institutions average tuition and fees is now $10,338 per year. That number jumps to $22,689 for out-of-state students.

As principal at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, an admission-free, comprehensive public university, I have seen students reduce the number of courses they take or take a semester off to pay for college without applying for additional debt . And it’s not just at my institution: a new one Lumina Gallup poll showed that 25 percent of students who dropped out because of the cost of attending did so, even though 41 percent of them originally decided to go to college to find a better-paying job.

These students try to make good decisions, but are often unsure if the cost of studying is really worth it. We know that the longer it takes a student to complete a degree, the less likely it is that they will ever make it. We also know that completing their degrees will likely lead to these higher paying jobs and greater opportunities overall.

At UAA, like so many other schools, we have offered a variety of pandemic-related discounts and scholarships. We’ve eliminated certain fees and cut others. We offered Scholarships for dorm residents who had taken a break and needed to get back on track or who, after losing or leaving their job, wanted to return to school to earn a certificate or other evidence of retraining or upskilling. These programs continue today. You have helped many of our students return to school or stay in school when otherwise it would not have been possible.

After two years of uncertainty, we’re still trying to do everything we can to make college affordable. For example, we recently announced two new discounts for out-of-state students. For those who want to learn online we offer government tuition fees for non-residents. And for students who want to experience the adventure and beauty of Alaska and live on our campus, we offer state tuition and a housing discount. A full-time non-resident student taking 12 credits can save more than $15,000 annually.

For years we have focused on recruiting first-generation students. We have found that targeted programs at various high schools, such as our TRIO Upward Bound and Educational Talent Search programs, are important components of recruiting and retaining these students. However, these programs serve only a small percentage of prospective first-generation students in our service areas. To fill the gap, we’re investigating promising models like that AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE Program that recruits first-generation students and pays their tuition as long as they promise to stay in college. A step in this direction is ours Vara Allen Jones Fellowship. Vara was a first generation college student – someone who understood the struggle and tried to support others.

Of course, apart from cost savings, our pandemic students want to know that there are opportunities on the other side of their degree, and they want a mix of online and face-to-face classes. Our long-term goals include continuing to connect our students to a changing workforce by ensuring the programs we offer are accessible and provide students with skills that employers are looking for. Practice-oriented courses such as construction management and human services can be completed entirely online. In the fall, we offer a deliberate mix of online, hybrid, and face-to-face classes to meet the needs of our Alaskan-based students.

The pandemic has transformed the way universities operate and engage with students of all types. It is evident that we must continue to implement cost-saving measures for students, especially first generation, indigenous and colored students. Everyone is talking about how higher education has changed since the pandemic. We have used the lessons learned to think about our future students and their evolving needs and respond with more flexible and affordable higher education options – and others in higher education must continue to strive for this.

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