Affordable Learning Opportunities

Higher education should be affordable and accessible to all students. But the average cost of a college degree has more than doubled since 1988. Meanwhile, total student debt nationally has grown from $240 billion in 2003 to nearly $1.6 trillion today, with over 44 million Americans student loan debt. WGU is committed to affordable higher education, reflected in a unique tuition model that is thousands of dollars lower than the national average.

COVID-19 has made affordability, already fraught, more challenging. State budgets are reeling from the pandemic’s effects, and policymakers have difficult decisions ahead about prioritizing limited resources. Without structural changes or additional investments in underserved populations, the pandemic risks leaving Americans without access to an affordable education.

Policymakers must confront and stem rising institutional costs through performance-based funding, encourage financial literacy and responsible borrowing so students understand the cost of their education and return on their investment, and ensure existing resources are allocated to align with and meet the demands of today’s students.

 

Increase FAFSA Completion

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is often a starting point for students to understand that financing their education is possible. Meanwhile, millions of college students do not fill out the application each year, forgoing billions of dollars in financial assistance. As COVID-19’s reach continues to devastate personal finances across the board, the student struggle is clear. Nearly 250,000 fewer returning students from low-income backgrounds submitted the FAFSA this cycle, and completion rates among high school seniors have fallen as well. While WGU and others continue to advocate for a more simplified and streamlined FAFSA process at the federal level, in the interim, states can and should support students through the existing FAFSA completion process. Some states, such as Louisiana, have implemented FAFSA completion as a part of their high school graduation requirements and have provided wraparound support for students. Even if a state does not require FAFSA completion, there should be initiatives that include a wide range of services for students that facilitate completing the FAFSA, ensuring that more students have a full picture of their financial support options and opportunities.

 

Permit State Financial Aid to Support Microcredentials

Certificates, certifications, badges, and other types of industry-recognized credentials can offer more accessible options for reskilling and upskilling and a more efficient way of meeting employer needs. States can lead the way by supporting high-quality microcredentials that are competency-based, personalized, and validated, with excellent student and employer outcomes. While microcredentials provide an immediate economic and career benefit without requiring completion of a full degree program, microcredentials most benefit students when they are stackable toward earning a full degree. The massive economic disruption caused by COVID-19 underscores the need for funding for microcredentials. States need to support workers in returning to the workforce as quickly as possible, while recognizing that many of the jobs that are gone may never return. Workers need accessible opportunities to reskill and upskill.

States have an opportunity to make significant progress toward this policy change. State financial aid and tax policies can be modified to further their residents’ attainment of high-quality and workforce-relevant short-term certificates and microcredentials. Many people seeking short-term certificates are ineligible for forms of federal financial aid, whether seeking their first credential or additional skills beyond their degree. Efforts are under way at the federal level for expanded access to Pell Grant funding for short-term certificates, but in the interim, state financial aid can be shaped to allow students the ability to gain immediate, workforce-relevant knowledge and skills to quickly address critical labor shortages in states and industries. 

Deducing Student Debt

Ensure Equitable Access to Need-Based Funding and Other Relevant Grant Programs

State aid or state higher education benefits are often available only to students at specific institutions, but students deserve state support that allows them to pursue education at the school that best meets their needs and prepares them for the workforce. Students should be able to access their state’s need-based aid programs to attend any high-quality institution with proven student success and employment outcomes. It makes sense to invest in students attending high-quality, accredited institutions that accommodate students’ schedules and family obligations, provide a potentially shortened time to degree, and have demonstrated student outcomes at a lower cost.

WGU was created by states for states to provide access to high-quality higher education. Too often, however, outdated state laws, rules, and regulations, bounded by arbitrary regional accreditation and state-based physical locations requirements, deny students equitable access to use need-based and other grant funding to attend innovative schools like WGU. A number of states have been correcting this, resulting in more options and better outcomes for students.

 

Provide Alternative and Innovative Financing Options

The need to access learning at multiple points in one’s career and life will increase and grow as the workplace changes. Funding lifelong learning opportunities requires both traditional and nontraditional means. Traditional options, such as Pell Grants and state need-based aid programs, must be expanded to meet these demands. In addition, policymakers can embrace ways to  give students innovative financing tools to pay for lifelong learning opportunities while avoiding costly debt.

One model includes Lifelong Learning Accounts, which are savings accounts that can be used to fund a broad array of advanced learning, including high-quality short-term credential and training opportunities to achieve necessary skills for success in the workplace. Individuals, employers, and third parties can contribute to the costs necessary to support lifelong learning opportunities, no matter where the person is employed.

Additional mechanisms such as Income Share Agreements are being discussed and implemented in limited instances across the country. While more work is needed to fully understand and operationalize these methods on a large scale, states have a great opportunity to explore and expand the use of these and other innovative financing options when they are in the best interest of students.

Encourage Financial Literacy Through Responsible Borrowing

Financial literacy tools play a critical role in helping students to have a better understanding of the impact of debt and to borrow responsibly. WGU has implemented a set of internal practices to educate students on financial implications of student debt under the Responsible Borrowing Initiatives (RBI). The basis of this work is simple: advising students to borrow only their unmet direct education costs. WGU’s outcomes suggest students at other institutions would benefit tremendously from this approach and that incorporating responsible borrowing into statewide systems would have a direct and long-lasting benefit for students. WGU representatives are available to provide testimony on the value of financial literacy and to share information on WGU’s Responsible Borrowing Initiatives.



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Meet our Graduates

Codie Sprinkle

A first-generation college student, Codie relied heavily on her program mentor for encouragement and support. Three years, one term break, and a lot of life’s ups and downs later, Codie completed her program and started demonstration teaching. She credits WGU’s flexibility and unique support model with empowering her to become a teacher, and is currently enrolled in a master’s program at WGU.




Mario Mejia

At age 17, Mario suffered a life-threatening brain injury that forced him to relearn basic functions like walking. He enrolled at WGU, where he earned his Master of Business Administration degree. A husband and father of two, Mario is the first in his family to earn a master’s degree. He now dedicates his time and talents to giving back.




Access to Lifelong Learning

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Affordable Learning Opportunities

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Recognition for All Learning

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Aligning Programs to Workforce Needs

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Modernizing Regulations and Licensure Reform

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