How Can Communities Work with Postsecondary Institutions to Find Affordable Options for Continuing Education?

December 2016

Today’s students rely on a number of sources to pay for their education, including family, work, and financial aid. However, as the cost of postsecondary education increases and federal aid dollars stretch thin, higher education is increasingly feeling out of reach for underserved students. Meanwhile, employers still call for employees to have a postsecondary degree or credential and possess job-specific skills, resulting in barriers to finding well-paying jobs among many minority and low-income students. To increase the number of credentialed adults, communities must ensure that postsecondary education is affordable, and this goes beyond keeping tuition and fees low. Institutions and employers must work collaboratively to find equitable ways to support underserved students through financial assistance, schedule flexibility, and reduced time to degree completion.

Read this chapter for an introduction to effective strategies to make college more affordable for underserved students. Learn how the Big Goal Collaborative partners with the Questa Education Foundation of Northeast Indiana to innovate regional student loan programs, and discover new tools and resources to help students in your community manage the costs of higher education. 

Employer-Provided Financial Assistance: Does your community want to encourage employers to provide their employees with financial assistance for further education and training? Employer-provided financial assistance, such as tuition reimbursement or scholarships, makes pursuing higher education a more affordable option for employees wishing to advance in their career. Innovative partnerships are working to provide students with up-front benefits to pay for courses, rather than after-credit completion, to further ease the initial cost burden. Employers that provide financial assistance for postsecondary education are better able to recruit high-quality employees and benefit from a high return on investment.

FAFSA Completion: Does your community want to ensure students have access to financial aid? To ensure students receive financial assistance, it is critical for community partners to improve student access to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Current and prospective students must complete the FAFSA to determine their eligibility for receiving federal financial aid, and often for other sources of state and local assistance. There are several methods for increasing FAFSA completion, including holding information sessions at community organizations and education institutions, as well as providing proactive advisors to assist students as they complete the form.

Flexible Course Scheduling: Does your community want to help students juggle various responsibilities by offering schedule flexibility? Many of today’s postsecondary students have priorities outside the classroom, including caring for family members and employment, so course schedules need to fit their busy lives. Institutions can provide flexibility by offering courses in the evening, on the weekend, at branch or satellite locations, or online.

Accelerated Courses: Does your community want to decrease the amount of time and cost burden required for students to earn a degree? Another strategy for improving affordability is to reduce time to degree completion with accelerated or compressed programs that can be completed in less time than the standard academic term. As discussed in Chapter One, institutions can award students with credit for prior learning experiences and reduce the number of credits needed for degree completion. This allows students to focus on courses leading to new competencies and to finish their degree more quickly and affordably.

Northeast Indiana: An Innovative Financial Aid ProgramThat Helps Prevent “Brain Drain” in the Community

IHEP spoke with Ryan Twiss from Big Goal Collaborative and Marc Levy from the Questa Education Foundation of Northeast Indiana to learn how their partnership has expanded an innovative financial aid program that provides students attending an Indiana college or university with low-interest loans and repayment forgiveness for staying in Northeast Indiana to work after graduation. Read this interview to learn how this community partnership is working to improve regional talent to fill a growing number of high-skill, high-wage jobs in the region.


IHEP: Can you explain why the Big Goal Collaborative’s College to Career Action Team (CoCAT) was established?

Our backbone organization, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, oversees a regional strategic effort known as Vision 2020. The regional effort has five pillars, one of which we call “21st Century Talent,” focused on collaboration between businesses and the education system to create a knowledgeable and skilled workforce. Starting with Vision 2020, we developed our cradle-to-career initiative, the Big Goal Collaborative.

CoCAT specifically started with a grant opportunity from the Lilly Endowment open to all of the Indiana colleges and universities to support strategies aimed at keeping students from Indiana in Indiana after graduation. The institutions weren’t interested in collaborating, however, and the Lilly Endowment announced that it denied all institutional applications in part because they didn’t demonstrate community partnerships and collaborative efforts. The Big Goal Collaborative reached back out to all of the institutions and offered to collaborate again. From there, we quickly formed CoCAT, which is made up of all of our nonprofit postsecondary institutions in the region and is very focused on aligning academic programming and experiential learning opportunities with the needs of our local employers.

IHEP: What are Questa’s specific goals and how do they align with the overall mission of CoCAT?

The Questa Education Foundation has three goals that align with CoCAT: (1) improve access to postsecondary education, (2) increase college completion, and (3) reduce student debt and retain talent in the Northeast Indiana region. Our vision is to transform the business landscape in the region by preparing the workforce for the economy of the 21st century. In order to do this, we build relationships with high schools, colleges and universities, and employers across the entire region. Our goal is to work collaboratively to further develop programs along the education and career pipeline.


IHEP: How has CoCAT partnered with Questa to address affordability?

Questa has been involved in CoCAT’s cradle-to-career work since the beginning. When Marc [Levy] joined us, he brought expertise on FAFSA completion and the transition from secondary to postsecondary education from his work with the United Way and Strive Together in Portland, Oregon. To help CoCAT with affordability, Marc does a lot of relationship building among the Questa scholars to create connections to the community. Questa’s mission is to provide partially forgivable loans to graduates who commit to staying in the Northeast Indiana region, and this contributes to CoCAT’s overall purpose to align academic programs with employers in the region so that graduates will stay in the community. We also try to ensure that universities promote the Questa program and that we help recruit underserved students from secondary schools. It’s really a true partnership in which we support each other’s efforts to improve college affordability and attainment for all students.

The bottom line is that once students graduate high school, we want them not only to attain postsecondary education but also to complete their degree with reduced debt and a link to a job.


IHEP: What steps is Questa taking to increase degree attainment and make postsecondary education more affordable?

Questa is focusing on student retention in the university and linking student experiences that better prepare them for employment in the region. The bottom line is that once students graduate high school, we want them not only to attain postsecondary education but also to complete their degree with reduced debt and a link to a job. We’re working to prevent “brain drain” and losing talent in the community.

IHEP: How did you develop the low-interest loan program?

Our low-interest loan program has been around in different forms for about 90 years. It started way back when there was a principal of a high school who saw students who were very talented and very capable, but who had a financial barrier keeping them from furthering their education. He was loaning them money out of his pocket and was getting help from community philanthropists. So, if we fast-forward, the program went from being what was the Fort Wayne Education Fund, tied specifically to Fort Wayne schools, to a fund for all of Allen County, and then expanded even broader to the program we have today.

IHEP: How does your low-interest loan program encourage students to earn a degree and stay in Northeast Indiana for their future career?

Over the past several years, we’ve been working to expand our efforts in the entire region and parallel our work with the CoCAT partnership. The model that we’re currently using is providing students working towards an industry certification, associate’s, or bachelor’s degree at any public or private non-profit postsecondary institution in Indiana with low-interest, forgivable loans. The concept is that if students stay and work in the region after graduation, or come back if they went to a school somewhere else in the state, then after five years Questa will forgive 50 percent of the loan amount. Over time, we expanded our relationships with regional higher education institutions and created a memorandum of understanding that the institution will also pay back 25 percent of the loan to further increase the likelihood that students will stay in the region to live and work. The schools agree to this in order to attract more students, and the students who benefit from the program remain in the area because they have to meet our criteria of staying in the region in order to be eligible for forgiveness. Furthermore, we’re able to sustain the program using funds paid back by institutions and former students to provide loans to future students.

IHEP: How do you work with community partners to expand affordability programs?

We’ve been working to strengthen a bottom-up type of approach rather than a top-down approach by working with local school districts, private schools, and even home schools to organize community events, reach more students, and create buy-in at the local level. The partnerships that we’ve tried to develop are locally based, community by community, county by county, in the region of Northeast Indiana. Our program isn’t something being imposed on the community. Rather, it’s a process of engaging and working with school districts, local businesses, community leaders, and families.

The partnerships that we’ve tried to develop are locally based, community by community, county by county, in the region of Northeast Indiana. Our program isn’t something being imposed on the community. Rather, it’s a process of engaging and working with school districts, local businesses, community leaders, and families.


IHEP: Can you describe Questa’s recent outcomes for students?

We just had our fifth graduating class. Over 75 percent of the students are completing their degree in four years and over 90 percent are completing in five years. Also, over two-thirds of the traditional students are staying, living, and working in Northeast Indiana. So, the completion and retention parts are both working. We’re also starting to work with nontraditional, returning students. The retention rate is much higher with our nontraditional students, because many of them already lived here and were in the workforce. We’ve also significantly grown the number of students we’re reaching and are able to provide funding to—for instance, we reached about 360 traditional students total through the first five cohorts combined, whereas we had about 160 students in our most recent cohort alone.


Financial Aid Template

This tool developed by the U.S. Department of Education highlights how to calculate students’ estimated cost of attendance and payment options, and explains basic financial aid terminology. This handout can be used by counselors and mentors.

Adult Student Checklist

Also created by the U.S. Department of Education, this checklist is designed for adult students, to help them prepare academically and financially for college. The checklist also includes helpful links to additional information.

Questa Education Foundation: Memorandum of Understanding

This tool provides a template for establishing a partnership between a local foundation and a higher education institution for providing students with financial assistance through low-interest, forgivable loans.

Questa Education Foundation: Loan Terms and Conditions and Payment Note

Use this tool to learn about the terms and conditions and repayment schedule of the Questa Scholars program in order to provide students in your community with a low-cost option for financing postsecondary education.

Additional Resources

Trends in Student Aid [2015: College Board]

This report from College Board details the types of student aid—including scholarships, grants, and loans—that college students have received over the past 10 years. In order for communities to improve college affordability, it is important for them to know what types of aid students are receiving and the demographic differences among financial aid recipients.

With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them: Myths and Realities About Why So Many Students Fail to Finish College [2009: Public Agenda]

Public Agenda’s report looks at several barriers to degree completion, including tuition costs, competing work schedules, and family obligations. The report includes stories from individual students and data to explain broader trends. In order to address these issues, Public Agenda recommends increasing availability of financial aid and course schedule.

How Full-Time are “Full-Time” Students [2013: Complete College America]

This policy brief from Complete College America presents survey data about college student enrollment status and time to degree completion. Key findings from the survey indicate that many students who are enrolled as full-time do not take a full course load, which negatively affects them by increasing the time to degree completion, costs, and the likelihood of dropping out of school.