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The new Congress will have the opportunity to do something meaningful to make college more affordable. It should stop asking families to save for college.

The expectation that students and their families will have squirreled away tens of thousands of dollars for a college education no longer makes sense in a world of high college costs and deep racial and income inequality.

Student debt has catapulted past $1.5 trillion. A whopping third of women in college have their own kids to support. A substantial number of college students are going hungry.

All that student debt isn’t even buying college success — or a fair shot for those who need it. Low-income students are four times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their wealthier peers. While 55 percent of whites between the ages of 25 and 34 have at least an associate degree, only just over a third of blacks and less than three in 10 Latino adults have any degree.

Congress will be working next year on the long-overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The chances of a bill getting through both the Democratic House and the Republican Senate are uncertain, but this is also the moment for leaders to advance novel ideas for investing in America’s future that will take hold in the 2020 election cycle and beyond.

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The blueprint for jettisoning college savings is in Beyond Tuition, a broad vision for a more equitable, higher quality higher education system that the Center for American Progress released in 2018. In exchange for new federal and state funding, colleges would sign performance contracts with government entities, committing to specific benchmarks to improve performance and close equity gaps.

Beyond Tuition envisions a world where no one forces students to take out loans, where colleges stop expecting low-income and middle class families to sock away money they don’t have, and where colleges ask only for a reasonable slice of a family’s current income.

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Students whose families make less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level — just under $38,000 for a family of four — would pay nothing for an in-state college, while middle-class families would pay no more than 10 percent of their income. Upper income families would be expected to pay no more than 20 percent of their income. Students who chose private, nonprofit colleges or out-of-state publics would have a slightly higher contribution, but the same guarantee of affordability.

Crucially, when we talk about covering the cost of college, we mean not just academic expenses like tuition or books, but also living costs including food, housing, and transportation.

Families that have the means to save for college would still find it in their interest to do so, because they wouldn’t have to tighten the proverbial family belt by up to 20 percent while their student was enrolled. But yesterday’s bedrock assumptions about paying for college are simply unfair to today’s students, half of whom don’t get family help for paying for college. Four in 10 Americans can’t come up with $400 for an emergency. And people of color don’t have the savings of white Americans. For example, the median wealth of black households is one-tenth that of white households.

Our proposal would cost the federal government about $60 billion a year. That’s a tiny sliver of last year’s multi-trillion-dollar tax cuts, and an investment in the potential of all Americans that would pay off in a more prosperous, just society.

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Yet if that price tag ends up being too high for the new Congress, this proposal could still provide a framework to approach financial aid policy differently. Instead of thinking about what aid to offer a low-income student– a Pell grant, for example – we should be thinking about what that student’s family can reasonably afford, and how to fill in the rest.


Marcella Bombardieri is a senior policy analyst for higher education at the Center for American Progress, and a former Boston Globe reporter.