FINANCIAL AID packages are too small to cover all the costs of college. Parents already know this. But last week the state's Board of Higher Education released its analysis. Even with financial aid, families in Massachusetts still needed an additional $562 million last year beyond their means to cover all their higher education costs.
For example, a family earning $70,000 would generally be expected to pay $8,000 to $10,000 toward a child's college bill. Grants and loans might cover part of the remaining costs, but not entirely. So families would have to pay or borrow more.
Low-income families are hit hard: nearly all of them had unmet needs. The median amount ranged from $4,100 to $5,000.
To fill this hole, many families borrow, taking private loans or using credit cards. It's a burden for parents who are paying for several children or trying to save for their own retirement. And debt can cause some students to drop out and steer others away from important careers like teaching, where pay can't keep up with college debts.
The state's task force on financial aid is expected to hold public hearings on the issue and submit a report in the fall. It should address several issues.
It's appealing to give grants to deserving academic stars who are great at physics or debating. But by and large, these students are already on their way to college, as Bridget Terry Long has argued. Long, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, presented the debt data to the board. More money should be invested in students with pressing financial needs who are less likely to go to college.
Early this month, Florida did this by creating the First Generation Matching Grant Program. It provides grant money for public university students who are Florida residents, in need of financial assistance, and whose parents have not earned bachelor's degrees. The schools have to raise funds, which the state will match on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Initial funding is $6.5 million. It's an effort that bears watching to see if it succeeds at making college a new, financially viable part of these families' lives.
Other worthwhile strategies include cost-cutting at public colleges and loan forgiveness programs for students who become teachers, social workers, public defenders, or other vital, lower-paid workers. Colleges should increase career counseling and build more bridges to companies making it even easier for students to join the workforce and earn enough to manage their debts.
Educating future generations should be a shared responsibility: students, parents, government, business, and charities ensuring that college bills don't overwhelm families.