This Missing Piece May Be Arizona’s Key to the Higher Education Access and Attainment Puzzle

Author: Rich Nickel, President and CEO, College Success Arizona

April 19, 2017

Increased postsecondary attainment will shape the future of Arizona.

The massive economic and social benefits of increasing postsecondary access and attainment will substantially enhance the state’s economy and expand opportunities for more Arizona residents. Central to this effort is the irrefutable need to empower more low-income Arizonans with greater access to postsecondary education opportunities.

To be clear, there is no magic bullet to increased attainment.  The solution is a giant and complex puzzle, with several pieces in place and many key pieces still missing.  Need-based aid is the vital “corner piece”, that must be inserted for the puzzle to lock together.

Over the last decade, rather than investing to increase access and attainment for low-income students, Arizona has reduced funding for higher education. Since 2008, no state has made greater cuts to funding for higher education than Arizona. The state has reduced funding for public colleges and universities by 56 percent, leading to an 88 percent tuition price increase.  This amounts to a $3,615 reduction in per-student spending. The already small amount of need-based state grant aid available also shrunk substantially.

Many states shifted away from subsidizing institutions, and instead emphasized grant aid for students themselves.   Unfortunately here in Arizona, we put the “double whammy” on higher education by reducing financial support for higher education institutions and students.  Discouragingly, at our public universities, state-sponsored financial aid, of any kind, amounted to “less than one-half of one percent of the total system-wide financial aid.”  All other aid came from institutional or federal sources.

Arizona’s public universities have acted valiantly, awarding millions in student aid through the tuition set-aside program required by the Arizona Board of Regents’ policy.  Unfortunately, the need for this type of aid will likely grow disproportionally faster than available funding moving forward, making it an unsustainable long term solution.  Community colleges face immense challenges, as there is no substantial need-based aid available for students outside of federal sources.

Completing the attainment puzzle will require an effectively developed, robustly funded, targeted, college access grant program.

So, how do we find this missing piece to the attainment puzzle?  College Success Arizona recently released two policy briefs exploring this issue.  Those briefs focused on:

  •      The importance of increasing college access and completion
  •      How cost impacts greater college attainment and a more skilled workforce
  •      The urgent need to reverse Arizona’s downward trend in investment in higher education with a commitment to a state-sponsored, need-based grant aid program

  In 2015, the Arizona Commission on Postsecondary Education (ACPE) convened a Financial Aid Task Force to explore solutions to the financial barriers that inhibit access to higher education for low-income students, and the resulting effects on the state.  The Task Force identified state grant aid as a tool to increase postsecondary access and support completion for Arizona’s low-income students. Four key characteristics were identified that define effective state grant programs, and overlap with recommendations from national organizations.

Policymakers can make progress on the completion of our attainment puzzle, and increase statewide access and attainment rates in pursuit of the recently announced Achieve60AZ goals, by developing robust and sustainable need-based state grant aid programs. College Success Arizona recommends these items for consideration.

  1. Increase and sustain investment in state grant aid programs. Arizona’s existing programs are severely underfunded. Increased and sustained funding will enable the state to resume suspended programs and establish new programs to meet state goals
  2. State grant aid should be substantial and reliable. Currently, Arizona’s state-sponsored grant aid programs provide only minor support for low-income students.
  3. State grant aid programs should provide low-income students with precisely targeted awards that can be used to attend any accredited postsecondary institution in the state. Portability enables students to use grant aid at any eligible institution, empowering them through expanded postsecondary choices.
  4. State grant aid programs should promote early awareness. New need-based grant aid programs should be designed to reach low-income students in middle school, a critical time in their academic careers.
  5. State grant aid program eligibility rules and application procedures should be easy to understand. To ensure that the investments in a need-based state grant aid program are impactful, the program should be designed to ensure that all students and their families can easily take advantage of the grant opportunity.

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