President Leath: Universities, states and federal government all have role in making sure college is affordable

WASHINGTON, DC --- Iowa State University President Steven Leath told a U.S. Senate committee today that a college education should be accessible to anyone who wants to pursue it.

Steven Leath

Steven Leath

“And being accessible means being affordable, without being burdened by an unmanageable debt load, which unfortunately is the case for many today,” Leath said in testimony to the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Leath told the senators Iowa State has a four-pronged approach to reduce student debt and make college more affordable:

  • Hold down costs
  • Provide financial counseling and options to students and families
  • Be creative in identifying alternative and lower-cost paths to a degree
  • Maximize sources of revenue other than tuition

Leath noted administrative efficiencies and cost reductions made at Iowa State “are saving tens of millions of dollars annually.”

He pointed out that Iowa State is one of only five major universities that provide full-service financial counseling clinics to help students better understand budgeting, debt and responsible use of credit. Letters notifying students of their financial aid awards now include prominent mention of their debt and their likely loan payments after graduation.

Leath told the committee one alternative, lower-cost path to a baccalaureate degree is through community colleges. One-fifth of Iowa State’s new students transfer from community colleges, and increasingly, high school students enter the university having earned college credits through a community college. Students who take this route lower their costs and debt load.

The fourth action President Leath identified involves greater government support for higher education and more private support for student financial aid.

“The precipitous decline in state support for public higher education across the nation must stop,” Leath said. “States need to realize it is in their best interests to invest in higher education for their people if they are to capitalize on the knowledge-driven economic opportunities that lie ahead.”

The federal government also has a role to play, he said, urging senators to insure Pell grant funding keeps pace with inflation. He applauded congressional efforts to increase Pell grants for 2013-14 and to hold down interest rates on federal student loans.

Leath called on colleges and universities to provide funds to help students pay for their education. He noted that more than a quarter of the $867 million pledged in Iowa State’s most recent fundraising campaign, or $236 million, is committed to new scholarships and expansion of existing scholarship programs. He said Iowa State would soon launch a new initiative to raise more scholarship money.

Over the past decade, additional private and federal support has produced a 10 percent increase in scholarships and grants nationwide, and has reduced student borrowing by about the same percentage, Leath said.

“We didn’t get into this student debt dilemma overnight.  It’s taken decades of cost increases, state tax support decreases and poor financial decision-making to reach this critical debt level.  And we won’t get out of it overnight.  But with all stakeholders working together – states, the federal government, colleges and students – I know we can make real progress toward making college more affordable and, therefore, more accessible,” Leath told the committee.