A recent report by the nonprofit project on student debt contains some troubling news for Iowa families: In the class of 2008, students graduating from college in Iowa finished with more debt, on average, than students in any other state. Iowa State University, for its part, showed up on the report's list of "High Debt Public Colleges and Universities," those institutions notable for having very high student debt levels.
This might be due to a number of factors - stagnant incomes and some Iowa institutions' involvement in student loan scandals of recent years are two reasons that come to mind. But these numbers reveal a troubling shift for students in Iowa and across the country: Without a burgeoning number of students with mountains of debt upon completion, families are increasingly being priced out of higher education.
The Obama administration and others have shown an initiative to reverse the trend, and have put forth proposals to increase Pell Grants and reform the way students receive federal loans. But more is needed if we're going to both make college affordable and increase college completion rates among middle-class and low-income families - for instance, helping them save in the first place.
Saving can, of course, reduce financial burdens for middle-class students. But research also suggests that saving has behavioral benefits down the income ladder as well. Students whose families save early and often may be more likely to prepare for college in ways academic as well as financial.
Further, low-income students who currently don't see college as an option could otherwise be nudged toward it, even with a small amount of savings and assets at their disposal.
In such times as these, it may seem strange to advocate for savings as a gateway to higher education, especially for families with the fewest resources. But there are ways that policymakers can make it easier on these families to begin a pattern of saving for higher education.
First and foremost, people can't be afraid to save for college. Iowa has, commendably, excluded savings in 529 college savings plans for calculation of state financial aid. But low-income families, many of whom are on some form of public assistance, are often afraid that socking money away for a child's education will affect eligibility to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid or other assistance. Relieving these families' apprehensions could clear the way for families to save for a child's future.
Good. But there remains one elephant in the room: Even without barriers, can low-income families actually save for college? In short - yes, with some help.
A recent poll from Gallup and Sallie Mae sheds some light on the issue. It's not surprising that only 32 percent of "low-income families" - those making under $35,000 are saving for a child's college education. However, those low-income families that actually are saving do so in higher amounts and higher percentages than their high-income counterparts.
So, what does this mean? First, it is paramount to help more low-income students start saving on behalf of their future education and training. Second, when compelled to do so, working-class families are more responsible about saving for college than many middle- and upper-class families.
Some states are finding innovative ways to help these populations put away money. Maine (population: 1.3 million) recently set aside enough money to open a 529 college savings plan for every baby in the state, with $500 deposited upon sign-up. Illinois recently became the first state to offer a tax credit for employers to offer college savings plans to employees - who can then use them for children or their own retraining. A number of states also offer matching programs, similar to those seen in retirement plans, specifically to encourage low-income families to save for college.
Iowa Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald held a contest at the Iowa State Fair to give away $1,000 in a college savings account - the winner of which was Shelby Seddon, a third-grader from Des Moines. It's a good story, but more children need to be given the opportunity to make college more affordable and attainable.