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SJP and UC Divest Coalition Demonstrations at UCLAUCLA chancellor appointment

Greater accessibility promised by College Affordability Act worth the cost

(Jae Su/Daily Bruin)

By Elizabeth Hanczor

Oct. 24, 2019 10:17 p.m.

Families across the nation have staggered through financial debt for longer than UCLA students have lived.

But Congress has offered a beacon of hope – $400 billion of hope, to be exact.

The House of Representatives introduced an updated version of the College Affordability Act on Oct. 15, which would make college more affordable and accessible by finally overhauling the Higher Education Act of 1965. This bill intends to lower the cost of tuition and hold schools nationwide more accountable for the success of their students, all with the intention of easing the financial burden on lower- and middle-class families.

The original federal law is supposed to be reauthorized every five years. However, by virtue of partisan deadlock, it has been over a decade since it has been on the table.

The act introduces tuition-free community college and an overall lower cost of tuition in traditional four-year universities – a plan that would revolutionize higher education accessibility. Congress needs to pass this bill to ease the financial stress on families and increase college accessibility – a change that’s especially welcome, given the ever-rising cost of higher education. And for public universities like UCLA, it’s more of a necessity than an added bonus.

Though nothing is set in stone, the most important pieces of this legislation are federal investments in universities, specifically those regarding public and community colleges and the Pell Grant.

In fall 2018, 3,425 transfer students enrolled at UCLA, with over 3,000 of those students coming from California community colleges. This legislation serves as hope that more students of lower- and middle-class backgrounds will be able to enter the workforce with a UCLA degree, which has an unfortunately high price tag.

Andres Ramirez, a political science graduate who transferred to UCLA after his second year, recalled his transition to one of California’s elite universities as an important moment in his life.

“(The College Affordability Act) is going to push more students to get into the secondary education phase of their lives – and hopefully, will prompt them to want more after those initial two years,” Ramirez said. “I think it’s a great opportunity, not only for a higher influx of capable people at UCLA, but also providing everyone the opportunity to at least get their associate’s degrees.”

The common denominator between two-year programs at community colleges and four-year undergraduate universities is the Pell Grant, a government subsidy provided for students in financial need. The amount is determined by a student’s expected family contribution, cost of attendance at their university, full-time status and expected length of enrollment.

Charles Alexander, the associate vice provost for student diversity, said the College Affordability Act could affect UCLA’s future student body through increased financial aid.

“A third of our students are Pell-eligible and (increased funding) certainly provides additional support for students to help cover the cost of their education,” Alexander said. “And I know there’s some accountability measures that will make institutions not only accountable for supporting those students, but making sure that those students have a successful career in higher education.”

And this bill could be huge for students caught on the cusp of accessibility.

By closing the financial gap preventing lower- and middle-class students from starting at four-year universities, students will be able to use the resources of the school for longer than they used to be able to. In the same vein, students who could not afford to transfer into a four-year university will be encouraged to attend a tuition-free community college and transfer into a bachelor’s degree program.

Olivia Stone, a fourth-year history transfer student, shared her insight as well.

“I know there are a lot of people who have the same test scores and do as well as other students, but they cannot go to the same schools that other people can because they can’t afford it,” Stone said. “If community college was free and UC schools were cheaper, it would make it a lot easier for students who are paying for this themselves.”

Under the current policy, middle-class families are put in a tight spot: They have too much money to qualify for significant grants, but not enough to be able to afford the cost of a four-year college. This bill is welcome relief for the financial gray area that feels all too common.

And this act could be the start of reintegrating the public into what’s supposed to be their university system.

UCLA needs to be accessible to the hard-working kids who deserve it, not just those who can afford it. But with lackluster funding and support, the university would be hard-pressed to label itself as representative. Minority and middle-bracket students have been pushed aside for too long, and the diversity of UCLA’s student body has suffered as a result.

So for the first time in a long time, this bill could signify real progress toward accessible education, especially for public universities like UCLA.

But that’s not to say everyone is welcoming this bill with open arms.

A handful of politicians have shown concern for the bureaucratic processes of universities, suggesting the proposed changes will unnecessarily micromanage schools. More funding means more administrative staff required to oversee the distribution of these grants.

For instance, experts suggested new civil rights compliance personnel staff, a stipulation in the bill, will need to be hired and paid, increasing the cost of business. But frankly, if a university has a problem with one civil rights compliance employee, give them two. And while the bill doesn’t cross everything off Democrats’, Republicans’ or even students’ wish lists, it could fulfill some dreams of an affordable higher education.

Sure, universities will need to make minute administrative changes. But the benefits this bill will offer middle-class and lower-class students dramatically outweigh the costs.

Change has to start somewhere – and if this the starting point, the House is doing something right.

Four hundred billion dollars of reform is hopeful. Let’s keep this ball rolling.

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Elizabeth Hanczor
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