Federal higher education benefits are crucial investments for securing the country's future economic competitiveness. But for far too many students, the financial aid programs fail to meet their goal of making college more affordable. An in-depth review of other federal benefit programs in health care and housing provides valuable lessons for rethinking higher education benefits. These programs are structured in a way that guarantees that money provided to individuals will be enough to meet costs. But they also hold other parties accountable to ensure recipients are not being charged more than they can actually afford.
As detailed in this report, there are several options policymakers could take to ensure that investments guarantee affordability, simplicity, and certainty for students and families. To accomplish this goal, an affordability guarantee must create clear expectations that financial aid dollars will cover the cost of college, that states cannot continue to pull money away from public colleges, and that institutions will be held accountable for high tuition and burdening students with too much debt. In order to achieve their true aim and full potential, it is time for federal higher education benefits to not just be denominated in dollars but instead guarantee affordability and access for the most vulnerable individuals.