This appeared in the Skidmore College website:
Q&A: Sandy Baum urges Congress to hike student aid
A graduate of Bryn Mawr College (B.A.) and Columbia University (M.A., Ph.D.) Sandy Baum joined the Skidmore faculty in 1987 and is a former chair of the College’s Department of Economics. She is currently on leave from the College and working as a researcher and consultant for the College Board and other educational organizations. She is the author the College Board’s annual reports, Trends in College Pricing and Trends in Student Aid.
Baum has been studying higher education finance since 1986. “I find the intersection between my research and policy work and my career as an academic particularly exciting. It is most important to me that I have been able to make a real difference in the policy world, in addition to making academic contributions,” said Baum. In the following interview she answers questions about her Congressional testimony to urge support for increasing Pell grants.
Q: Was this the first time that you testified before the U.S. House Appropriations Committee? What was it like to prepare for the testimony and how was the process?
This was my first testimony before the Appropriations Committee, but I have testified several times before other House and Senate committees. The challenge is to craft a succinct and convincing statement that makes a concrete public policy case, but is clearly based on analysis rather than special interests. The oral statement is actually more difficult than the written statement, since it has to be extremely brief and many people outside the chamber are listening.
Q: How critical are federal and state financial aid programs for college students, and what is the purpose of publicly financing higher education?
Millions of students rely on financial aid from federal and state governments. The federal Pell Grant program provides funding for many low- and moderate-income students who would not be able to enroll in college without it. Federal loan programs are also vital, as they provide urgently needed liquidity to students and parents at all income levels. Colleges and universities themselves provide more grant aid to students than do federal and state governments, but some institutions can afford to be much more generous than others.
Q: In these economic times, what should students and families be thinking about as they weigh financial aid offers that accompany college acceptance letters? We’ve been hearing a lot about the value of a college degree–is there some sort of cost-benefit analysis that students should undertake?
All students should think hard about what they hope to get out of a college education and should carefully consider all of the available options. For some students, small private colleges provide the optimal experience. Others will find their needs met better at large public universities or at community colleges. A liberal arts education provides a very different experience and different preparation from a vocationally oriented program.
Financing college is quite complicated and people should get as much information as possible about available financial aid. In comparing offers from different schools, it is important to consider a variety of issues, including the balance between grants and loans, the probability that the grant aid will continue beyond the first year, and what work opportunities exist on or near campus.
There is no simple cost-benefit analysis that a prospective student can perform because the benefits of college are substantial, but quite varied across individuals. Students who feel confident about their future occupational choices can estimate their post-college earning power, but even then there is considerable uncertainty. On average, college graduates earn much more than those with lower levels of educational attainment. Borrowing for college is a wise investment, but it must be done cautiously to avoid creating undue hardship later on.
Q: How should families and students prepare to finance their college goals? What are some of the most critical decisions they must make?
The best thing families can do is to save in advance for college if at all possible. Students and parents should collect information about the prices of different college options and about financial aid available from all sources as early as possible. A mistake many people make is to assume that colleges with high published prices are out of reach. These colleges frequently have the most generous financial aid. It is critical that people compare different loan options. Should parents borrow or should they urge their children to carry the debt? It is almost always best to exhaust federal loan eligibility before turning to private bank loans.
Q: Your December testimony appears to have influenced Congressional opinion–it has been reported that Congress has agreed to increase Pell funding via the 2009 economic stimulus package that the Obama administration is preparing. How does it feel to have influenced public policy for so many students?
There were many voices making the argument both for increased Pell funding and for funds to support infrastructure on college campuses. It is clear that as a nation we have an urgent need for increases in human capital as well as physical capital. When the economy is weak, more people choose to go to school to improve their prospects in the labor market.
It is very rewarding to see public policy moving in constructive directions and to be a part of the process.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say about the economics of higher education?
It is unfortunate that some very vocal people are starting to question the value of a college education and to discourage students from stretching financially to take advantage of educational opportunities. Some form of post-secondary education is vital for most people. Students from the least privileged backgrounds are most likely to miss out on these opportunities. This reality is both inequitable and inefficient, as it leads to considerable waste of talent.~Interview conducted by Andrea Wise, Office of Communications