Report calls for policymakers to lower financial barriers for college attainment
Marquis Quarles, who grew up in South Phoenix and later graduated from McClintock High School in Tempe, said going to Arizona State University transformed the way he thought about himself.
“Growing up in poverty, I felt that I wasn’t capable of getting further than where I was from,” Quarles said. “Every day, my focus was making sure that I ate and that I stayed out of harm’s way. Sadly, that is the mentality of a lot of kids growing up in tough neighborhoods.”
Through hard work, and help from College Success Arizona, the Achieving a College Education Program, and need-based college financial aid, Quarles graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Now, Quarles is building the life he’d dreamed about through his career at a major fashion company based in Santa Barbara, California.
Need-based financial aid is based on the assets and income of a prospective college student and their family and can come from a variety of sources including the federal government, the state, the college or university, or donations from individuals, businesses or other organizations.
Increasing need-based financial aid for Arizona college students like Quarles would help raise the state’s postsecondary attainment rate, develop the skilled workforce Arizona businesses need and boost the economy, according to College Success Arizona’s most recent policy brief, “Investing in College Access, Supporting Completion How Need-Based State Grant Aid Can Help Increase Higher Education Attainment Rates in Arizona.”
Financial barriers to higher education
The cost of higher education is currently a significant barrier for low-income students, many of whom are also racial or ethnic minorities, said Rich Nickel, chief executive officer of College Success Arizona.
“It is also a barrier to increasing the overall attainment rate in Arizona and thereby growing Arizona’s economy,” Nickel said. “Need-based grant aid from the state can help to reduce this barrier and promote access and attainment.”
Since 2008, the Arizona Legislature has cut funding for public colleges and universities by 56 percent, which has led to an 88 percent increase in college tuition, despite efforts by Arizona colleges and universities to keep the cost of education affordable.
“There are a lot of kids that have the potential to be great, who want to go to college. However, due to the financial hardships they are faced with, these kids do not have the opportunity to go to college,” Quarles said.
Arizona “is failing to invest in low-income kids, and relying on universities and colleges (via increased costs to the students and families) to do the job that the state should be doing to keep higher education as close to free as possible, as the Arizona Constitution mandates,” Nickel said.
Reaching state attainment goal
Increasing need-based financial aid is one way to help Arizona reach the goal of more 60 percent of Arizonans with a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2030, Nickel said.
In 2016, a coalition of 60 organizations announced the 60 percent goal under the Achieve60AZ banner.
“As our previous research shows, increasing higher education attainment not only offers economic and social benefits for individuals and their families, but also for the state as a whole. If Arizona matches the national average for attainment, the economic and social gains would amount to more than $6.3 billion annually,” Nickel said.
Andrew Garcia said the need-based aid he received and assistance from College Success Arizona were critical to him becoming the first person in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree. Garcia recently earned his degree in criminal justice from Northern Arizona University’s Yuma branch campus.
Garcia, who grew up in Yuma and graduated from Cibola High School, plans to give back to his community by becoming a law enforcement officer.
“I want to give back to the community because it has been a part of me my whole life, and in a way has shaped the person I am today,” Garcia said. “Giving back will let me give a little bit of myself to the community in way that could perhaps inspire or help someone.”
Leonor Amaya, who graduated from Maryvale High School, said need-based financial aid has helped her pursue her dream to work at NASA. Amaya attends Glendale Community College and plans to transfer to ASU to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
“Financial aid has taken a huge weight off my shoulders and I am grateful for it because it is allowing my dreams to become possible,” Amaya said. “Without financial aid I don’t know if I’d be able to attend college.”
Recommendations on state grant aid
To remove the financial barriers to postsecondary education that low-income students face, the Arizona Commission on Postsecondary Education’s Financial Aid Task Force made the following four key recommendations on state grant aid in 2015:
- Need-based so that it’s accessible to students with the most financial need.
- Portable so that a student can use it at any higher education institution in Arizona.
- Transparent so that middle and high school students know about it.
- Accountable so the success of the program can be determined by analyzing data.
This analysis of what would make an effective state grant aid program for Arizona aligned with recommendations from national organizations including the Education Commission of the States, the Lumina Foundation and the Brookings Institution, and state grant aid programs in Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas.
Key recommendations for policy makers
The brief also included these key recommendations on what policy makers can do to develop effective state-sponsored need-based postsecondary financial aid programs.
- Increase and sustain investment in state grant aid programs.
- State grant aid should be substantial and reliable.
- State grant aid programs should provide low-income students with precisely targeted awards that can be used to attend any accredited postsecondary institution in the state.
- State grant aid programs should promote early awareness.
- State grant aid program eligibility rules and application procedures should be easy to understand.
These recommendations were created to provide Arizona policymakers with a framework so they could take action to bring postsecondary education within reach for more Arizona students, Nickel said.
Policymakers should also know that increasing state need-based aid helps more than just the person who receives it, Garcia said.
“Making it a priority could have an impact on somebody’s life as they could have a chance to go to college and make a difference not only for themselves, but for their family and the community,” Garcia said.
Need-based college financial aid “can help people start their career with little to no debt, so they have the opportunity to build financial wealth,” Quarles said.
It also increases “the flow of money in the economy, which benefits government and businesses,” and “creates more jobs and opportunities for the youth to grow,” Quarles said.