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Why We Can’t ‘Afford’ to Limit Ourselves to Definitions

By David Sheridan

Along with colleagues from all walks of higher ed, I was thrilled to have been selected to be a member of the Forward50. If you’re reading this, you probably have some familiarity with the initiative; it brings together a group of higher education professionals to wrestle with the challenges that have become obstacles as we, and especially the students we serve, try to attain our full potential. We will dive into issues deeply and broadly, review best practices, interpret data, tear apart old models, and consider new approaches, all with the goal of providing recommendations to our peers, our elected officials, our customers, and the nation about how to best serve our students and our society.

We first met in the prolonged D.C. winter in late March… and the word “prolonged” became even more relevant soon, as most of us found ourselves in D.C. for an extra day or two thanks to numerous snow storm-related flight and train cancellations. Some familiar faces, mostly unfamiliar, some introduced in advance by mutual friends… even the intros were interesting, learning how diverse our backgrounds were, appreciating the richness that would bring to our final product.

The Forward50 will be specifically examining and focusing on the issues of access, affordability, accountability, and transparency in U.S. postsecondary education, with the group divided into subgroups for each topic; after a day of presentations from leading researchers and thought leaders in each of those areas, we were asked to prioritize our interest in a subgroup. NASFAA staff worked to give everyone as high a priority choice as possible… but also wanted to spread those with similar responsibilities out among groups, so that, for example, one group didn’t have all of the financial aid professionals, another didn’t have all of the college presidents or chancellors, etc. Like many of my colleagues, I enjoy talking financial aid with financial aid administrators. But opening up these discussions to include a range of areas of expertise provides more breadth and depth of perspective than you can get with a homogenous group.

Having spent my entire career in financial aid, I thought affordability was where I had the most to offer. The group includes membership from the offices of financial aid, disabilities/equity & diversity, provost, admissions, student affairs, and business, along with a president and a chancellor. We range from coast to coast, north to south, urban and rural, comprehensive doctoral universities, community colleges (even a few schools well known for football)… a very representative cross-section of American higher education.

But… just what does “affordability” encompass? I think most who work in higher education recognize that it’s more than just a school’s sticker price — although we do have to acknowledge that many prospective students and families look no further than that sticker price to decide if a school is affordable. Is it financial aid or net price? Not entirely, but that certainly provides a more complete picture. What about other resources that help pay for college but fall outside the realm of financial aid, such as tax credits, employee benefits (tuition or student loan repayment), income share agreements, AmeriCorps benefits, VA benefits, even crowdsourcing? When talking about affordability, do we need to consider how a student’s intended degree or credential impacts his or her future, career, and earning potential? Are two identically priced programs — say one in engineering and another in a liberal arts field — equally affordable if graduates of the engineering program have a higher median salary than those in liberal arts? Or is there too much grey area there? The fact remains that most jobs in our economy requiring a degree do not require a specific field of study… lots of CEOs have degrees in fields such as English and philosophy.

As National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) President Justin Draeger said to the whole group at the outset, NASFAA assembled 50 Type A personalities… a subtle warning that if you want to be heard, you’ll have to bring your “A” game. As our subgroup assembled in a breakout room, along with NASFAA staff liaisons and a facilitator from the firm of McKinley Advisors, those “A” games were everywhere. Exercises in which we envisioned future higher ed headlines that addressed progress in affordability generated a lot of lively discussion and great ideas; my favorite was “Student Loans Abolished,” but then again, that was one of mine. That was followed by a free-form flow of ideas on Post-It notes that we used to cover the wall in broad categories that fed our themes.

An exercise to create a definition of affordability morphed into something much longer than a simple dictionary-style definition, so we have started calling the document “guiding principles.” The themes we identified — funding mechanisms, sources of funding and their sustainability, cost/price, and return on investment — will serve as a further breakdown into smaller sub-subgroups.

So, for now, it’s reading assignments, conference calls, brainstorming, gathering ideas, editing, all over a period of months until we meet again in person in December in Las Vegas, where at least we are unlikely to get snowed in.

Check out other Forward50 blog entries.