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Metro Areas Take on College Affordability

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Many of us are pleased that Congress took action last Friday to temporarily freeze interest rates on federal student loans. But none of us should expect it to make more than a tiny dent in the massive problem of college affordability.

After all, we didn't get this deep into debt overnight. College price tags have been rising for 30 years, up 570% between 1982 and 2011, according to the Committee for Economic Development. That's almost four times the rate of growth in median family income. A 12-month reprieve in interest rates can't close the gap between what a college education costs and what most Americans can afford to pay. And besides, when college becomes truly affordable, there will be more to it than money.

We can look at what's happening in metro areas across the U.S. to see how the problem is going to be solved -- creatively, collaboratively, with a hard, honest re-evaluation of past practices in light of new realities that make a post-secondary degree at once more important and more problematic.

A good case in point is metro St. Louis, where business leaders have adopted an economic development strategy that gauges future vitality in part on the strength of the region's human capital. With support from the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association and the public sector, the leaders conducted an analysis of critical occupations in five industry clusters, and found that more than 70% of the talent they need must be college-credentialed.

With this knowledge, St. Louis area companies, educators, foundations, and government agencies have set out together to raise post-secondary graduation rates. They are building on key regional assets (a wealth of colleges and universities, a high level of civic pride, a private sector that "gets it") and focusing on the elimination of persistent barriers -- such as affordability. Here is what they have decided they must do if they are to make a significant difference.

  1. Dig deep into the data to get to know college-goers better. Many of today's college students are juggling school, work, and family responsibilities at the same time. In St. Louis, for example, 33% of students at four-year colleges and 52% of those in two-year schools are enrolled part-time. Some are plodding along, one or two courses at a time, and are therefore not eligible for most federal grants or loans. But they can benefit from employer-sponsored tuition-assistance, matched-savings programs, scholarships, peer mentors, and workplace-based opportunities to take classes at reduced rates or online. Fifteen large employers in St. Louis will administer a survey to their employees later this summer to learn how the region can best encourage and support them.
  2. Encourage innovation to drive down college costs. Until we bend down the rising arc of tuition, college will never be affordable. Many forward-thinking institutions have adopted a variety of tools and techniques to reduce both the money and the time needed to earn a degree. In St. Louis, Higher Ed faculty use "prior learning assessments" to evaluate whether students may have already mastered prerequisite knowledge in the workplace, allowing them to avoid unnecessary coursework. Schools have developed accelerated degree programs, integrated study majors, and hybrid online / experiential courses that allow students to streamline their experience toward a high-value degree. Others use technology creatively to transform curriculum design and delivery, decreasing costs and improving learning outcomes at the same time.
  3. Take advantage of opportunities to collaborate. Seemingly small steps can require big cultural changes -- not the least of which is the need for public and private sector players who may not have worked together in the past to start doing so now. Businesses in St. Louis are partnering with post-secondary institutions to improve college completion among working adults, but they also share ideas, best practices, and informational resources with organizations targeting other college-going groups: high school students, displaced workers, veterans, and others. And St. Louis participates in the national Talent Dividend Network, an initiative of CEOs for Cities that links college completion activists in 57 cities across the nation, encouraging them to exchange practical ideas for solving shared challenges like affordability.

It's kudos to Congress for extending reduced interest rates on student loans. But the real story on college affordability has yet to break -- and when it does, it won't be from Capitol Hill. Watch metro areas across the map if you want to see it.

Blair Forlaw is an economic development freelancer, BForlaw, LLC. and Noël Harmon, Ph.D. is national director of the Talent Dividend at CEOs for Cities.