At a recent convening at the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan turned to a group of student experts for answers to the college accessibility, affordability, and completion challenges America faces today. The 15 high school and college students – who brought their firsthand knowledge to the Student Voices session from D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania — identified key improvements to the college application process throughout a conversation with Secretary Duncan and Under Secretary Martha Kanter.
While the national conversation often focuses on the cost of college courses, books, and housing, one student said that expenses begin before setting foot on a college campus. “I’ve already spent a lot of money just applying to colleges,” said the student.
Another student said that the Department should standardize and publicize fee waivers so that students know waivers exist and apply for them.
The Secretary said that most students who fill out the FAFSA apply to just one school. “We have the best [higher education] system in the world and we think [students] should have choices,” said Duncan. “How do we get more students to comparison shop?”
Students agreed that they’d utilize a website that would easily allow them to compare schools – on their own terms. “It is more important about having everything in front of you, all the statistics you can get on a school or college at one time to compare them yourself, not to be compared by someone else,” said one student.
Describing the ideal college website, students said that it should be a “one-stop shop,” linking all government websites that provide assistance in the college application process. Students agreed that the website would also need to be interactive, visually appealing, and simple.
When it came time to apply for college, one international student said, the whole process was foreign to him. He suggested that the website allow users to make profiles that identify knowledge gaps and connect students to resources that fit their needs.
Students said that a website would be a more useful informational tool than counselors and coaches, mentors, or peers. After all, students agreed, in-school support is hard to come by: counselors are too overworked and overwhelmed to individually advise students about the college application process.
“We are doing it on our own,” said one student.
When asked if they would take earnings after graduation into account when picking a college, students said income is not as important as job security and being passionate about your work. “The end game is not always about earnings,” said a student.
As the session came to a close, Undersecretary Kanter spoke about what is next and how students could continue to help develop a comprehensive source to help in college accessibility and affordability. She spoke about the importance behind the rating system, “Can we use the rating system to improve schools? Can we use the rating system to improve consumer choice?” she asked. That is what the Department of Education is continuing to work towards in the next year. Undersecretary Kanter urged the students to continue having an active voice in the conversation by sending in feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. Students can also find more updates and information on the Department’s college affordability website.
Jackie Breuer is a student at American University, and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach