An Interview with Beth Akers: The Next Steps: Building a Reimagined System of Student Aid

Oct 4, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –


1)            Beth, first of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you work and what you do?

I am a Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, where I research the economics of education. I focus on higher education finance policy in particular.

2)            Now, what is wrong with the current system of student aid- at least in your opinion?

The biggest failure of the current system is that it doesn’t support students in making good decisions about college.  The complexity of the system, as well as the lack of good information for prospective students, cause many students to make suboptimal decisions about enrollment and ultimately allow poorly performing institutions to remain in business.

3)            In your mind, how much responsibility should the student have, how much responsibility should a parent have, and how much responsibility should the government have?

Students are accountable for their enrollment decisions and educational outcomes.  They are the ones who pay the price to attend, and they are the ones who will collect the benefits of a degree after it has been earned.  However, the government has a critical role in helping prospective students (young people or adult learners) to make good decisions.  In other markets, the government can allow consumers to experiment with products and learn how to make good decisions on their own.   But because most people make the decision to invest in education on only one occasion, there is no time to learn from your own mistakes.  This paired with the complexity of the higher education system are good reasons for the government to take some responsibility for student success.

4)      I understand Bill Gates is involved with this project- what is the extent of his involvement?

As part of its Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery (RADD) project, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided grants to more than a dozen organizations working on postsecondary financial aid solutions, providing funding for each to explore policy recommendations for improving financial aid so that more young people can attend and succeed in college.

The RADD project culminated in early 2013 with white papers published by each organization. Each paper offered recommendations on how financial aid can help more students be successful in college. My paper is a synthesis of that entire body of research.

5)  I understand on October 3rd, there will be a panel discussion. Who will be participating and what are the essential topics?

On October 3rd, I will be joined by several other experts on higher education finance to discuss the most effective path forward in financial aid reform. Rory O’Sullivan, the policy director at Young Invincibles, and Michael Tanner, the Vice President and Chief Academic Officer at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, both authored reports as part of the RADD project, so they will be able to share the specific policy recommendations prioritized by their organizations.

Richard Vedder of the American Enterprise Institute will provide another valuable perspective. I expect that our discussion will focus on those interventions that are most likely to occur in light of the President’s priorities, and how we can ensure that those interventions are truly effective at increasing access to higher education. For example, we know there is a great deal of support for creating a system of institutional accountability – something the President has already indicated he plans to do – but steps will need to be taken to ensure that any such system does not create perverse incentives for schools.

6)  What research was actually reviewed in preparation for this panel discussion- can you provide a brief overview?

In preparing to write my paper and to participate on this panel, I analyzed the comprehensive body of research that was produced by the RADD project. This included 16 different white papers by organizations that represent a mix of business, higher education, civil rights and public policy perspectives.

Despite the diversity of the viewpoints represented, a number of points of consensus emerged among the reports.  While implementation strategies often differed, objectives were aligned, largely around the need for:  simplification; better information for students and families; a system of institutional accountability; and new ways to serve the needs of non-traditional students.

Of course, areas of disagreement emerged as well.  For instance, fundamental disagreement exists around the issue of affordability and the role of debt.  While some implicitly support the notion that debt is acceptable insofar as a degree is affordable in the long run, others argue that savings and current earnings should be sufficient to pay most of the bill for college enrollment.

These trends are explored in much more detail in my paper, which is available at .

7)      I think we all want low and middle income students to succeed in college- but should they be working part time during the summer months or on the weekends?  What about work –study programs?

Some research has shown that students are more successful in college if they work part time.  However, time spent working takes away from time that could be invested in education and may ultimately delay graduation for some students.  Delaying graduation can be very costly in terms of direct costs, tuition and other costs of enrollment, as well as the opportunity cost of lost wages.  The decision to work while enrolled in college is an individual one.  The important thing is that students understand the financial aid resources that are available to them if they choose to forego working in order to devote their full time to education.

8)  Now, there seems to be an increase in pupils with exceptionalities and special needs- kids with learning disabilities, attention deficits and the like. Will this sub population be discussed?

This subject is not covered in this particular paper.

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