Over the past few decades, the American economy has been transformed and the American family structures have changed—but the American system of college financial aid has barely budged.
For almost 50 years now, the United States has utilized virtually the same approach to distributing federal financial aid to families that need money for college. The circumstances, constraints, and conditions of family life have shifted substantially during that time, but the assumptions that financial aid makes about those families and the ways it interacts with them have changed very little.
Today, college campuses, family dinner tables, and national political circles are all abuzz with conversations about college affordability. But unless the United States first understands how the math of college financial aid went wrong in the first place, the country will never solve the riddle of fixing it.
Consider how the financial-aid formula assesses what a student will pay for college. Families complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and when they finish, they are told their “expected family contribution” (EFC). This is the number that parents are expected to pay to help send a young student to college, at least as long as the student doesn’t have a spouse or child of her own. The formula leading to the number doesn’t take into account the parents’ debt, even from their own educations. Yet with the EFC, the government makes a clear assertion: When it comes to paying for college, parents should help their students.