The higher education system suffers from a lack of affordability that can limit access for low-income students, a challenge BPC’s Task Force on Higher Education Financing and Student Outcomes addressed in its final report last year. The latest proposal to make college more affordable for low-income students comes from Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) with the Earn to Learn Act. The newly introduced bipartisan bill would incentivize saving for college though a savings match program, while helping students develop healthy financial practices.
Even prior to the pandemic, 44% of low-income households reported being unable to pay all of their bills in a typical month. Within that financial reality, saving for college is an immense challenge—one that has been compounded by rising prices at higher education institutions and the declining purchasing power of Pell Grants. These trends have pushed a college degree even further out of reach for low-income families.
The Earn to Learn Act seeks to address this problem by implementing a college savings vehicle through which low-income families could contribute to a college savings fund and receive a generous 8:1 matching grant. These grants would supplement other sources of federal aid, including Pell Grants, and reduce debt burdens among low-income students without affecting aid eligibility.
The Earn to Learn Act is modeled on an Arizona program of the same name that serves Pell-eligible students. Early evidence of program impact is promising: over half of participants are graduating without student debt. Those who do carry debt graduate with a lower burden than similar borrowers at the same schools—less than $10,000, compared to approximately $23,000 for their peers. While these are encouraging outcomes, additional research to determine whether a more moderate match ratio would produce similar results may be useful. A lower matching incentive would allow the program to serve a greater number of students.
Every dollar that eligible families save for college in excess of $500 would be matched by $8 in grant funding. Match funds would be paid directly to the institution of higher learning upon enrollment. The program would be implemented by a state agency or non-profit that would retain a high degree of flexibility with regard to program design, such as the selection of eligible educational institutions and the determination of what income levels would qualify. The bill allocates $100 million in federal funding to the program each year through a competitive grant, with administering agencies required to demonstrate both a commitment of non-federal funds as a 1:1 match as well as capacity to launch and implement the program.
In order to receive the match, students must:
- Be from a low-income family
- Contribute at least $500 to an educational savings account
- Successfully complete a personal finance training program
- Submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
- Be admitted to an institution of higher learning
- Fulfill any other requirements set by the state or administering organization
States or administering organizations would also be responsible for verifying enrollment and tracking student outcomes through data sharing with institutions of higher learning.
The savings match program under the Earn to Learn Act is a creative strategy with the potential to improve college affordability for low-income students and families and promote equitable access to higher education. When the cost of a degree is a barrier for so many, policies that can boost access and outcomes for students deserve serious consideration.
Note: This blog was updated to reflect $500 savings thresholds families must meet for eligibility for the federal match and to clarify eligibility requirements for the Arizona program.
Note: This blog was updated to reflect that families receive a match for every dollar in excess of $500 and to clarify eligibility requirements for the Arizona program.