The world of postsecondary education has changed tremendously since the early 1970s. In 1972, about a quarter of 18-24 year olds enrolled in college; thirty years later, enrollment rates had climbed to 40 percent. The number of non-traditional students—part-time students; adults who are balancing work, family, and school; and so on—has also ballooned, and these students now outnumber the “traditional” undergraduate that lives on campus at a four-year college. College also costs about three times what it used to, even after adjusting for inflation.
In other words, we are now enrolling far more students, of a vastly different make-up, and at a much higher cost than we did 40 years ago—and yet federal financial aid programs look virtually the same as they did in 1972. Sure, policymakers have layered new programs like tax credits and parent loans on top of the basic grants and loans born a half-century ago, and tweaks to eligibility and benefit levels have changed the size and scope of the programs.