Does Biden’s College Loan Forgiveness Program turn “college” into a trigger word? And what does that mean for college access grants?

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Certain words and phrases elicit intense positive or negative emotions. These are called trigger words, which can usually be grouped into related categories; culture, government, media, pop culture, social debate, and other (pertaining to localities). With the announcement of Biden’s Loan Forgiveness Program, “college” now falls within each category. The landmark move to wipe out billions in student loan debt has drawn criticism and praise from all corners, polarizing opinions and sparking debates. 

With the current political climate surrounding postsecondary education, how can practitioners stay clear of conflict and provide meaningful information to participants during counseling and advising sessions or family workshops? Here are three tips that might help minimize emotions.

Tip 1: Utilize data

Now more than ever, college access practitioners need to use data when discussing postsecondary opportunities with students, families, and communities. Furthermore, a deeper dive may be required so that the audience receives data related to them and their demographics. Imagine your audience member asking these questions: What does the return on investment look like for someone like me, my gender, my ethnicity, and my zip code? What does completion look like for someone like me at this institution? Search institution graduation outcomes by student characteristics here. You can also read NCAN’s latest report, Using Data in Postsecondary Advising to “Lift” Completion Likelihood.

Having data-driven conversations can help students make a more informed plan for life after high school. For example, presenting US Bureau of Labor Statistics and IPEDS data on institutional completion rates by student characteristics can aid families in the college decision-making process. Complex conversations are inevitable, but numbers can provide the power to have the discussion. 

Tip 2: Find a commonality

Since almost everyone agrees that student debt is an issue, programming to help families understand the return on investment (ROI) of postsecondary education is needed, including conversations about students that enrolled but never obtained a degree. In fact, about 40% of the student debtors in the United States have debt but no degree six years after first entering college, according to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data analyzed by the Hope Center‘s Mark Huelsman. Practitioners must share information about college completion by institution and student characteristics during advisement. 

Another example of the commonality strategy is to remind participants that what they might feel while learning about the college-going process and funding postsecondary education is normal and that most people get anxious talking about money. 

Tip 3: Rephrase or replace

Another strategy to steady emotions during student and family events is to frame discussions around careers and career paths to avoid tension while providing college counseling and advising. Replacing the word college when applicable with options such as “education and training beyond high school,” “career path options,” or “furthering education” could reduce potential negative connotations some might experience currently. During discussions, adjusting from college enrollment to college completion shifts the focus from going to college to graduating college.