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Policy forum at Northeastern: Federal financial aid needs reform

College administrators, students and graduates addressed the nation’s ailing federal financial aid system on Friday during a town-hall policy forum at Northeastern University, calling for a more user-friendly, predictable system for young people and adults who face financial barriers to college success.

To watch a video of the discussion, please click here:

The panel discussion on improving federal student aid policy comes at a critical time: As the cost of higher education in New England continues to rise faster than household incomes, and with the recession projected to last longer and run deeper in the Bay State than in the nation as a whole, state aid to students attending both public and private institutions is on the chopping block.

Northeastern and the College Board, a nonprofit membership association that guides more than 7 million students and their families through the college admissions process each year, organized Friday’s public discussion. The event was sparked by a new study on rethinking student aid by an independent team of policy experts, researchers and higher education professionals brought together by the College Board.

In his opening remarks to about 50 policymakers, educators and students, Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and co-chair of the Rethinking Student Aid study group, stressed the importance of “rethinking the whole way the system works” with the hope of bringing policy suggestions to Washington.

Congress is currently considering President Barack Obama’s higher education budget, which could include some of the most fundamental changes in federal student aid in decades, making enormous strides in accessibility and affordability.

“Our biggest ambition in developing the rethinking group was to change the conversation around student aid from ‘who gets a little more of this or who gets a little less of that’ to about what will really make a system work for students,” McPherson said. “President Obama said last year that change doesn’t come from Washington. He said change comes to Washington.”

The public forum focused on ways to achieve a simple federal aid system that puts students first and achieves more for every dollar spent. The “role of federal aid is not simply to enroll students, but rather to graduate students,” said Seamus Harreys, Northeastern’s dean of student financial and career services. But college applicants face a series of hurdles associated with financial aid packages even before they set foot in the classroom, including what he called a “basic lack of knowledge” of the process.

To make the process more transparent, Harreys favors a plan to educate families as much as a decade before the college application process starts. “Financial aid information,” he said, “should be moved back to the K-12 environment so families can say, ‘We know we have these resources (for college) in eight, 10, 12 years.’ ”

But what happens after a student who receives a large amount of financial aid graduates? He’s often left to shoulder the burden of debt: private university graduates in 2007 took on an average of more than $25,000 worth of debt, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Adrian Haugabrook, vice president for enrollment management and student success and chief diversity officer of Wheelock College, suggested paying more attention to how debt affects students’ career choices and providing incentives for students who go into typically low-paying professions, such as human services or education.

Many Wheelock graduates, Haugabrook said, use one-third of their take-home pay to repay student loans. “How many people will move away from their passion of being a teacher because they’re not going to make an awful lot of money?” Haugabrook asked. “We need to create incentives so students go into fields they believe in.”

Students say borrowing significant amounts of money to complete their degrees changed their college experience and affected their career choices. Jill McCusker, a graduate of Stonehill College, said she chose to attend the small college in Easton, Mass., primarily because it offered the most aid and ensured she would graduate with the least amount of debt.

After graduation, she moved back home to save money and continued driving an older car to put would-be car payments toward college loan payments. She quit one job and found another higher-paying position, and decided to put graduate school on the back burner.

“If given a new career opportunity to increase your salary, go for that,” she said. “Because I did that, I’m able to put more money aside each month to make loan payments.”

McCusker also encouraged students to look for work-study positions on campus. Every little bit helps, she said. “Working 10 hours a week in an office and working summer and winter breaks, I could set aside some money for living expenses and book fees.”

Other panelists included Lucille Jordan, president of Nashua Community College in Nashua, N.H., and Roshni Mirchandani, a junior at Northeastern. Richard Doherty, president of the association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, moderated the discussion.

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