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Financial Aid Key For Arizona's College Degree Attainment Goals

MARK BRODIE: The cost of college has been going up both here in Arizona and across the country, but the availability of financial aid has not been keeping up with those increases. That's led to a rise in the number of students who leave college with student loan debt. Some estimates put the total amount owed nationwide at around $1.5 trillion. A new report from Helios Education Foundation and WestEd looks into this issue in Arizona and other states. With me to talk about what they found are Paul Luna, president and CEO of Helios Education Foundation, and Paul Perrault, the group's vice president of research and evaluation. And Paul Luna, let me start with you. How big of an issue is this?

PAUL LUNA: Well, I think what we're exploring here and we're talking about financial aid comes to a point, but really driven by two points of broader context that I think are really important to understand and the first one is — and it's really important to us here is education foundation — is the idea of investing in education. So one of our fundamental beliefs is we believe education is an investment and not an expense. And the second piece really ties to that, which is this idea that says our mission at Helios is that every student in Arizona and Florida will earn some type of post-secondary education degree. And we believe there's a direct correlation between an individual that's able to be successful in some type of academic achievement after high school and their preparedness for the workforce and the type of economy that we want to have in our state. And so those are the two elements that are really driving this conversation and when we look at one of the major barriers for many students to achieve that post-secondary education degree we see that financial aid becomes a major point of emphasis.

BRODIE: Paul, is this is this mostly a matter of students who can't get financial aid are forced to maybe take on loans and then take on debt or get additional jobs at school as opposed to having sort of the way that financial aid works be able to help them pay for college? Well it really impacts it's not just those students. It impacts all students right now.

PAUL PERRAULT: Well, it really impacts it's not just those students. It impacts all students right now. We've seen over time that you know, tuition keeps increasing across the country. In Arizona for example, you know we have a 52 percent increase since 2010 and with that increase — and at the same time with a decrease in the amount of money coming from the state and sometimes even the federal government — it means that more students, but especially those low income students, are looking to pay a bigger percentage of their college education. And that's been really challenging for students and for many of those students it comes into play by taking out more loans. And then what kind of financial future are we asking those students if we're asking them to take out more loans.

BRODIE: Paul, are we seeing less financial aid available now than we have in the past or just not enough to meet the growing demand of students who are going to college?

LUNA: Yeah, and I think the point that we're trying to make is this whole area of financial aid is a point of emphasis that we think all of us should be more mindful of. And I think it's more in the realm — as you just suggested — we as a state and wanting to deliver the workforce to the businesses we want to attract know that more and more of our students need to be successful in some type of college or university environment. So we are increasing the number of students that want to go that need to go. And we just don't have the resources, and we're pointing out that some of the best practices in other states around the country as they have a comprehensive financial aid system in place. That's something that we don't have in place right now in Arizona and that's something that we believe strongly we should be looking at and in particular for those students who financial aid becomes or the lack of financial aid becomes a barrier to their ability to succeed after high school.

BRODIE: It seems like kind of a tricky balance that you're trying to deal with here because as you say you're trying to encourage more and more students to go to school but at the same time it's tougher and tougher for them to actually be able to afford it and not have a mountain of debt when they get out.

LUNA: And that's very true. It's one of the reasons why we want to be very careful here because especially in Arizona we know we have wonderful colleges and universities that are doing everything they can to help increase the access and success of students from wherever they're coming from. And we know that that's the case. But what we also know and have learned through through this brief and through the research we found is that there are some pointed best practices that we should be embracing in terms of how we engage students and families to help them to understand. Sometimes it's a lack of information, a lack of understanding, of how to engage in financial aid, where to look for it, how to minimize the amount of debt they might have coming out of college. And so there are some areas that we can actually improve and how we serve students while we're also advocating that we believe we should be investing more and that's back to this comprehensive financial aid system as as a goal.

BRODIE: What has to happen for universities to be able to offer more financial aid?

LUNA: I think in the case of the universities they need more support from us, from the state from the community, from from all aspects of essentially society is to partner with our colleges and universities to give them the resources they need to be able to educate in the numbers that we need. The number of students that will be coming their way or those that were encouraging to go into the college and university environments.

BRODIE: So does that mean a line item in the budget specifically for financial aid? The state budget?

PERRAULT: We're not at a point where we're able to say specifically this, "this is exactly what the answer is." What we would like to create is raise awareness to the importance of financial aid as a comprehensive source of support for students that very much needed in order to be successful for support of our universities and colleges because they are in fact educating the workforce of the future for the state of Arizona. And raising the awareness so that students and families also stand more of how to navigate this system to minimize their debt.

BRODIE: Well so is the money out there if students and their families just know where to look and how to find it or is there more money needed you think?

PERRAULT: Well I think the money is out there if you add everything up and if you look from all the way from grants and other financial aid awards to adding student loans. Is the money out there to necessarily get students through all the way without taking on serious financial debt. That probably varies from student to student and how they apply and what institution that they go to. So it really is, the student families, the supports around them, really have to be mindful of starting with the FAFSA, applying to college, looking to see what all their options are as that as they go through college.

BRODIE: So Helios is calling for a meaningful state based financial aid system. What would that look like do you think?

LUNA: Yeah I think a meaningful system is for example, one of the states Helios also works is Florida. For example in Florida there is a program called "Bright Futures" what helps students. Higher achieving low income students also stay in state that keeps some of that brain in there. Many of the states across the country have specific scholarship dollars that are directed to keep students in the state and help students that are a) low income but also based upon merit too. So one of the things you know would probably be balancing that. How do you get more to a statewide financial system that can balance the merit and the need especially for first generation low income students to be able to go to college and be affordable if we really want to meet those workforce demands to keep Arizona a prosperous state.

BRODIE: At a certain point does this issue kind of also come down to state support of universities and community colleges? Because we saw tuition go up at least in part because the state wasn't sending as much money to the universities. I mean it seems like if tuition were lower there might be slightly at least less need for financial aid, right?

PERRAULT: Yeah, I don't think you can avoid that. And I think we're trying to be very clear in our position of we do advocate that the state should be investing in education in greater to greater levels than we are right now. But to be clear about that too is we would advocate that across the full education continuum.

BRODIE: Paul, are there other states that are really doing this right? I mean are there places that it's instructive to look at for how the system might function here?

PERRAULT: Sure sure. I mean every state is trying to figure out this problem. So you not going to look to one state and find the you know the be all end all answer. But there are places that are really trying to do different things. For example, Massachusetts looks to provide more 0 percent interest loan. So while you'll still have to pay back those loans you know you're not going to be buried by those financial costs. One thing that's kind of been happening and people across the country is some students especially students that might be lower income or not have the resources might end up getting kicked out for a semester because they can't pay financial fees or overages or something like that. So institutions are looking at having these smaller grants to help support those so the student doesn't get kicked out of school or miss a semester because they have not had that kind of support. Also other states around the country are looking to build promise programs so you get a certain amount of money that goes towards your college education, based upon how long you've lived in the state. So all of the states are really struggling with the same kind of issues and they're trying to figure out the best alternative pathways to help support them.

LUNA: And I'd like to focus again on this idea of why is this important. So what does this really mean to us as a state. And I think it goes back to the overall goal of the state. You know the state of Arizona right now has an attainment goal that 60 percent of our working population by the year 2030 will have some type of post-secondary education degree. And this is called a chief 60AZ. And this is one area where I will say all sides of all political parties and community perspectives do come together and say, you know, that is a goal that the state of Arizona really has to focus and achieve. And this is an important area for us to understand this area financial aid is if we're going to achieve 60 percent attainment by 2030, this is one of the areas that we need to really dig into and help those students to be successful.

BRODIE: All right Paul Perrault is vice president of research with Helios Education Foundation. Paul Luna is the group's president and CEO. Guys thanks for coming in.

LUNA: Thank you.

PERRAULT: Thank you so much. 

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.