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Making College Affordable Takes More Than Money

Posted in Higher Education on August 12, 2016 by

Who can afford to go to college? A lot of people say people can’t afford not to go, since a degree is a great investment in your future. A 25-year-old with a bachelor’s degree will earn $1 million more over a lifetime than someone without a degree, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

So more than 20 million Americans go to college each fall, even though it keeps getting more expensive every year, whether they go to an Ivy League school or a community college.

To afford college, about half of American college students take out loans. And eventually, most people pay them back, although it can take decades.

But affordability is not only about money. There’s also what I call “mental affordability”: your stamina for the stresses of school. Stresses and surprises from other areas of life — a sick child, a visiting cousin, a flat tire, a blown water heater — impede upon the ability to make it to class and on the focus a student needs to learn.

When it comes to mental affordability, your mind is like a checking account. On days where you’re doing great, your balance is high and you can accomplish a lot. When you’re low, you might be overdrawn and the next challenge becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

As Knewton’s Jose Ferreira explained in a recent post, today’s college students aren’t all fresh out of high school. One in five college students is at least 30 years old, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and 37 percent of college students attend part-time. While in school, many of these part-time students are working low-paying jobs or caring for their children or other family members.

When I visit an institution like Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan, I see 40- and 50-year-olds who once had factory jobs and are trying to remake their lives for a 21st-century economy. There are so many different elements to their lives: They are parents, they are employees, they are sons and daughters. If anything has to go, it’s going to be school.

Today’s students have to tune out a lot of distractions, and their lives may not be predictable enough to follow a master plan. While balancing school with other responsibilities, they may be taking it one term at a time, even one day at a time. On Monday, they know they can make it to class, but who knows what Wednesday and Friday will bring?

So I know how hard it is for some students just to get into that chair.


Once students are in the classroom, they see things they haven’t seen before. A former blue-collar worker sits down in front of the computer and wonders, “How do I get this text from this line to the next line?”

Meanwhile, for first-generation college students without mentors who studied beyond high school, the sheer intimidation can be overwhelming. You’re in a new academic and socioeconomic setting. Feelings of anxiety and incompetence swirl around in your head, and the expectations — your own and from those who depend on you — create more noise. There’s no way to shut off those feelings.

All of these thoughts and feelings come before anyone gets to making sense of standard deviations, or the functions of cells, or the law of supply and demand. Schools lose a lot of hopeful people because of these distractions, and that puts more of a burden on these individuals, financially as well as mentally. Two-thirds of student loan defaults are for $10,000 or less, and loans like these generally mean that the borrower never received a degree. These adults who made sacrifices in an attempt to improve their lives can’t afford to try again.

Educators today are better positioned than ever to help make college more mentally affordable. Some of this is about adapting to the wide range of students and responding to what each one is going through at any given moment, rather than expecting students to be responsible for all the adapting.

One way to keep down the mental cost of college is by providing better course materials. If you’ve only got ten minutes to study, you want to spend that time in the best possible way, and students using adaptive courseware can pick up exactly where they left off. An adaptive learning platform can figure out what each student is ready to learn and adjust its sense of their knowledge over the course of the semester, as each student learns. Instructors can see where their students need help in real time, and step in to support them when they need it.

Beyond courseware, there are many other ways institutions are adapting to student needs. Schools like Florida Keys Community College have dedicated scholarships for first-generation students, and they can get advice and support through organizations like uAspire. Baton Rouge Community College offers seven-week sessions that may be easier to complete than a standard 15-week semester, because there’s less of a chance of life getting in the way.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about making college more affordable. At the same time, we need to make higher education more mentally affordable for all students: whether they are veterans, single mothers, factory workers, or teenagers who just finished high school. That’s the only way we can put the American dream back within reach for everyone.

Bacari K. Brown is an institutional partnerships representative at Knewton.