Key Issues > Postsecondary Education Access and Affordability
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Postsecondary Education Access and Affordability

Given the importance of postsecondary education in ensuring the financial stability of individuals and the global competitiveness of the nation, the federal government provides financial assistance to help students and their families cover the cost of attendance.

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The federal government provides billions of dollars each year to help students and their families cover the cost of postsecondary education through programs administered by the Departments of Education and Veterans Affairs. The federal government also supports postsecondary access through tax expenditures—including tax credits, deductions, exemptions, and tax-preferred savings programs—that reduce federal tax liabilities. Given the nation’s current fiscal constraints, it will be important to: (1) strengthen coordination and oversight of federal programs and policies that support access to and affordability of postsecondary education and (2) safeguard these funds for future students.

  • Improving alignment of federal student aid and tax expenditures. Multiple federal programs and tax provisions are available to help individuals pay for postsecondary education, but the range of options may make it difficult for them to understand and apply for assistance. In addition, little is known about the effects of federal assistance on student outcomes, such as completion.
  • Strengthening accountability for student outcomes while maintaining access. The federal government provides financial assistance to students attending thousands of accredited institutions each year. However, relatively little is known about the quality of education being provided by these schools. Because few direct measures are available, indirect measures—such as graduation and student loan default rates—are often used to measure quality. While no single outcome can be used to measure something as complex as educational quality, examining multiple outcomes can shed light on the quality of education being provided.
  • Promoting choice and innovation while protecting the federal investment. While substantial growth in distance education may support postsecondary access, it also presents oversight challenges for the federal government. For example, concerns have been raised about the ability of schools to verify the identity and attendance of students enrolled in distance education programs.
Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.

VA Education Benefits:

VA Needs to Improve Program Management and Provide More Timely Information to Students
GAO-13-338:
Published: May 22, 2013. Publicly Released: May 22, 2013.

Higher Education:

Improved Tax Information Could Help Families Pay for College
GAO-12-560:
Published: May 18, 2012. Publicly Released: Jun 18, 2012.

Postsecondary Education:

Student Outcomes Vary at For-Profit, Nonprofit, and Public Schools
GAO-12-143:
Published: Dec 7, 2011. Publicly Released: Dec 7, 2011.

Higher Education:

Use of New Data Could Help Improve Oversight of Distance Education
GAO-12-39:
Published: Nov 17, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 17, 2011.

Higher Education:

Stronger Federal Oversight Needed to Enforce Ban on Incentive Payments to School Recruiters
GAO-11-10:
Published: Oct 7, 2010. Publicly Released: Oct 7, 2010.

More Reports

Federal Student Loans:

Oversight of Defaulted Loan Rehabilitation Needs Strengthening
GAO-14-426T:
Published: Mar 12, 2014. Publicly Released: Mar 12, 2014.

Federal Student Loans:

Better Oversight Could Improve Defaulted Loan Rehabilitation
GAO-14-256:
Published: Mar 6, 2014. Publicly Released: Mar 12, 2014.

Federal Student Loans:

Impact of Loan Limit Increases on College Prices Is Difficult to Discern
GAO-14-7:
Published: Feb 18, 2014. Publicly Released: Feb 18, 2014.

Federal Student Loans:

Higher Education:

Experts Cited a Range of Requirements as Burdensome
GAO-13-371:
Published: Apr 10, 2013. Publicly Released: May 10, 2013.

Higher Education:

A Small Percentage of Families Save in 529 Plans
GAO-13-64:
Published: Dec 12, 2012. Publicly Released: Dec 12, 2012.

Higher Education:

Improved Tax Information Could Help Pay for College
GAO-12-863T:
Published: Jul 25, 2012. Publicly Released: Jul 25, 2012.

Postsecondary Education:

Financial Trends in Public and Private Nonprofit Institutions
GAO-12-179:
Published: Jan 26, 2012. Publicly Released: Feb 27, 2012.

Higher Education and Disability:

Improved Federal Enforcement Needed to Better Protect Students' Rights to Testing Accommodations
GAO-12-40:
Published: Nov 29, 2011. Publicly Released: Dec 29, 2011.

For-Profit Schools:

Experiences of Undercover Students Enrolled in Online Classes at Selected Colleges
GAO-12-150:
Published: Oct 31, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 22, 2011.
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College Textbook InformationThursday, June 6, 2013
  • portrait of Melissa Emrey-Arras
    • Melissa Emrey-Arras
    • Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security
    • emreyarrasm@gao.gov
    • 617.788.0534