Think tank urges federal agencies to place value on student input

A District think tank is pressuring federal officials to incorporate student perspectives in the formation of higher education policies.

A study by the Center for American Progress, released last month, advocated for greater student participation because “rising tuitions and student debts mean rising stakes for college students.”

The report noted that the Occupy Wall Street movement allowed students to bring concerns about student debt and loan forgiveness to the forefront of national discussion, but that they were rarely able to contribute to the government agencies, philanthropic organizations and non-profits that create guidelines surrounding these issues.

Incorporating student voices on federal panels – including the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity and the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance – would trigger more efficient and up-to-date legislation, which could mean lower tuitions and debt, according to the report.

Leaders from those groups did not return request for comment.

Omitting students from the decision-making process leads to misunderstandings about their concerns, the study’s co-author, Julie Morgan said.

“When a committee includes only one student or tries to speak on behalf of students without really knowing any, you have this result when they don’t necessarily understand what the needs [of certain students] are,” she said.

Student debt is increasingly in the national spotlight. Nearly three-quarters of adults aged 18 to 34 said college graduates have more student debt than they can manage, according to a November report by The Institute for College Access and Success. GW graduates in the Class of 2010 had, on average, $32,547 in debt upon graduation, about $7,300 more than the national average, annual data from The Project on Student Debt show.

The study placed the onus of adding students to federal groups on the policy-makers, suggesting that federal officials should seek out student representatives, “one of whom is elected by a national body that represents student governments, such as the American Student Government Association, and one of whom has demonstrated experience dealing with the particular policy issues the committee will discuss.”

Students should use social media and grassroots groups to stay informed about higher education issues, the report added.

Morgan said student groups will have to work hard to attract the attention of federal policy-makers, but added that she believes it is possible.

“I think that student groups are going to need to push for these ideas and hope that they grow. We worked in conjunction with some student groups in writing the report and coming up with the ideas for it, so hopefully we’ve sort of built some consensus around some of the ideas,” Morgan said.

Paul Wahlbeck, chairman of the political science department, said intermediary organizations like the American Association of University Professors convey the concerns of faculty members to policy-makers, but said similar groups aren’t established solely for students.

The Student Aid Alliance is a coalition of higher education groups that lobbies for federal financial aid. The group – co-chaired by the American Council on Education and The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities – doesn’t have independent leadership and is not student-run.

Wahlbeck supported the ideas laid out in the report, especially in a university context.

“I think it’s a great idea to always include all parts of the University in discussions about policy decisions,” he said. “I think that includes faculty, staff, administrators and students.”

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