Federal Policy Priorities

Addressing Equity Gaps in Higher Education

Students from low-income backgrounds are only half as likely to complete a postsecondary certificate or degree by age 26 as high-income students. Moreover, students of color and those who are the first in their family to attend college experience disproportionately lower rates of postsecondary success.

These gaps exist because of structural inequities in our higher education system, and closing them is a compelling national priority with a tremendous potential payoff. Why? Because Americans from the lowest-income backgrounds who obtain a college degree are five times more likely than their peers to rise from poverty.
NCAN members know that students who receive federal student aid are more likely to succeed in higher education. The federal government, including Congress, the White House, and Department of Education, can make changes (below or download here) to help more students benefit from federal student aid and get the postsecondary degrees and credentials the U.S. economy needs.

Policies to Create Opportunity for All Students:


Build on the foundation of the FUTURE Act FAFSA improvements to eliminate additional unnecessary questions, create early awareness and an expedited process by automatically awarding full Pell Grants to students who receive means-tested benefits, and decrease the audit-like verification process that can lead an estimated one-quarter of Pell eligible students abandoning the aid application process.

Double Pell

At its peak in 1975-76, the maximum Pell award covered more than three-fourths of the cost of attendance at the average four-year public university. Today, it covers less than 30%. Congress should return the purchasing power of the Pell Grant to 50% of this cost – or approximately double the current grant. Additionally, the Pell Grant should then be tied to inflation to ensure its timely growth.

Improve Work-Study

The Federal Work-Study formula awards lump sum grants to institutions based on their length of time in the program. This outdated formula does not target funding to institutions with the largest portion of students from low-income backgrounds. Congress should re-work this formula and increase the investment in FWS, which at current funding levels can only support 10% of Pell Grant recipients.

Support All Our Students

All students regardless of their race, ethnicity, or immigration status deserve the opportunity for an affordable higher education. To support this goal, Congress should allow students from low-income backgrounds who are DACA/TPS recipients or those meeting similar requirements to be eligible for federal financial aid. This support will allow all of our students to pursue their educational dreams.

Create Fed-State Partnership

To both control the cost of college and provide additional support to help students from low-income backgrounds to close the financial aid gap, Congress should invest in a federal-state partnership that incentivizes states to invest in need-based aid and in stabilizing or reducing the cost of college for these students.

Improve Loan Counseling

Student loan counseling should be required annually. The delivery method must be tested with students to ensure it is beneficial without creating barriers. Further, the counseling should include the cumulative student loan debt accrued. Finally, students should be advised not to take on more debt than their starting salary.

Establish Debt Guidelines

The impact of over-borrowing on students’ lives is well documented. Student loans can fill financial aid gaps, but are only useful to the extent that they can be repaid. Students should not borrow more than their expected starting salary or the federal maximum set for dependent students, $31,000, or whichever is less. 

Create Food Security

College students who are worried about their next meal are not able to fully engage in their educational pursuits. Those who would otherwise be eligible for the SNAP program should receive this benefit by fulfilling the 20 hour work requirement with a combination of work and credit hours.

Standardize Financial Aid Offers

Financial aid offers can make it difficult for students to know how much they owe the institution, how much debt they will accrue, and what their additional expenses will be. Congress should require standardized terms and formatting to help students compare costs and make an informed decision.

Close Gaps through Data

The current landscape of federal data leads to an incomplete view of student attainment. A revamped system with student-level data would allow students to better understand their college choices and policymakers to better evaluate the use of public dollars in higher education. These changes will help to close achievement gaps.