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Four College Affordability Questions for the Next Under Secretary of Education

State higher education funding has been on a long-term decline, which has led to rising tuition prices and ballooning student debt. The pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges, and the Biden Administration has made college affordability a top priority.

James Kvaal is the Biden administration’s nominee for Under Secretary of Education and, if confirmed, will be tasked with improving the system for students and families. Here are some of BPC’s questions for his hearing this Thursday:

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  1. In the past, states were primarily responsible for funding their higher education systems, but state support for higher education as a percentage of personal income has fallen by half over the last 50 years. This has led to increasing reliance on federal student loans to make up where states have fallen short. What long-term reforms are needed to mitigate the impact of state disinvestment in higher education on college affordability?

  2. States tend to cut funding for higher education even more following a recession, creating shortfalls that persist through the next crisis. This was true following the Great Recession, where state per-student funding for higher education fell by 25% and remained 8% below pre-recession levels at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What countercyclical mechanisms are needed to help states maintain consistent investment during a recession?

  3. As state funding for higher education has fallen, prices have been on the rise. From 2007-08 to 2020-21, tuition, fees, room, and board at public four-year schools rose by 37%. At the same time, the size of the federal student loan portfolio has nearly tripled—currently totaling over $1.5 trillion. What incentives could be put in place to ensure students benefit directly from increased federal investments in higher education?

  4. During the campaign, President Joe Biden proposed making two years of community college tuition free, as a way to address affordability concerns and increase access to postsecondary training. Under such a program, what safeguards would be needed to ensure the back-end costs associated with degree production will not continue to rise?