Col­lege admin­is­tra­tors, stu­dents and grad­u­ates addressed the nation’s ailing fed­eral finan­cial aid system on Friday during a town-​​hall policy forum at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, calling for a more user-​​friendly, pre­dictable system for young people and adults who face finan­cial bar­riers to col­lege success.

To watch a video of the dis­cus­sion, please click here: http://​www​.north​eastern​.edu/​n​e​w​s​/​m​u​l​t​i​m​e​d​i​a​/​v​i​d​e​o​.​h​t​m​l​?​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​I​D​=​V​J​X​q​W​L​7​I​d​0​6​a​G​6​B​i​y​M​U​41Q

The panel dis­cus­sion on improving fed­eral stu­dent aid policy comes at a crit­ical time: As the cost of higher edu­ca­tion in New Eng­land con­tinues to rise faster than house­hold incomes, and with the reces­sion pro­jected to last longer and run deeper in the Bay State than in the nation as a whole, state aid to stu­dents attending both public and pri­vate insti­tu­tions is on the chop­ping block.

North­eastern and the Col­lege Board, a non­profit mem­ber­ship asso­ci­a­tion that guides more than 7 mil­lion stu­dents and their fam­i­lies through the col­lege admis­sions process each year, orga­nized Friday’s public dis­cus­sion. The event was sparked by a new study on rethinking stu­dent aid by an inde­pen­dent team of policy experts, researchers and higher edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sionals brought together by the Col­lege Board.

In his opening remarks to about 50 pol­i­cy­makers, edu­ca­tors and stu­dents, Michael McPherson, pres­i­dent of the Spencer Foun­da­tion and co-​​chair of the Rethinking Stu­dent Aid study group, stressed the impor­tance of “rethinking the whole way the system works” with the hope of bringing policy sug­ges­tions to Washington.

Con­gress is cur­rently con­sid­ering Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s higher edu­ca­tion budget, which could include some of the most fun­da­mental changes in fed­eral stu­dent aid in decades, making enor­mous strides in acces­si­bility and affordability.

Our biggest ambi­tion in devel­oping the rethinking group was to change the con­ver­sa­tion around stu­dent aid from ‘who gets a little more of this or who gets a little less of that’ to about what will really make a system work for stu­dents,” McPherson said. “Pres­i­dent Obama said last year that change doesn’t come from Wash­ington. He said change comes to Washington.”

The public forum focused on ways to achieve a simple fed­eral aid system that puts stu­dents first and achieves more for every dollar spent. The “role of fed­eral aid is not simply to enroll stu­dents, but rather to grad­uate stu­dents,” said Seamus Har­reys, Northeastern’s dean of stu­dent finan­cial and career ser­vices. But col­lege appli­cants face a series of hur­dles asso­ci­ated with finan­cial aid pack­ages even before they set foot in the class­room, including what he called a “basic lack of knowl­edge” of the process.

To make the process more trans­parent, Har­reys favors a plan to edu­cate fam­i­lies as much as a decade before the col­lege appli­ca­tion process starts. “Finan­cial aid infor­ma­tion,” he said, “should be moved back to the K-​​12 envi­ron­ment so fam­i­lies can say, ‘We know we have these resources (for col­lege) in eight, 10, 12 years.’ ”

But what hap­pens after a stu­dent who receives a large amount of finan­cial aid grad­u­ates? He’s often left to shoulder the burden of debt: pri­vate uni­ver­sity grad­u­ates in 2007 took on an average of more than $25,000 worth of debt, according to the Project on Stu­dent Debt.

Adrian Hau­gabrook, vice pres­i­dent for enroll­ment man­age­ment and stu­dent suc­cess and chief diver­sity officer of Whee­lock Col­lege, sug­gested paying more atten­tion to how debt affects stu­dents’ career choices and pro­viding incen­tives for stu­dents who go into typ­i­cally low-​​paying pro­fes­sions, such as human ser­vices or education.

Many Whee­lock grad­u­ates, Hau­gabrook said, use one-​​third of their take-​​home pay to repay stu­dent loans. “How many people will move away from their pas­sion of being a teacher because they’re not going to make an awful lot of money?” Hau­gabrook asked. “We need to create incen­tives so stu­dents go into fields they believe in.”

Stu­dents say bor­rowing sig­nif­i­cant amounts of money to com­plete their degrees changed their col­lege expe­ri­ence and affected their career choices. Jill McCusker, a grad­uate of Stone­hill Col­lege, said she chose to attend the small col­lege in Easton, Mass., pri­marily because it offered the most aid and ensured she would grad­uate with the least amount of debt.

After grad­u­a­tion, she moved back home to save money and con­tinued dri­ving an older car to put would-​​be car pay­ments toward col­lege loan pay­ments. She quit one job and found another higher-​​paying posi­tion, and decided to put grad­uate school on the back burner.

If given a new career oppor­tu­nity to increase your salary, go for that,” she said. “Because I did that, I’m able to put more money aside each month to make loan payments.”

McCusker also encour­aged stu­dents to look for work-​​study posi­tions on campus. Every little bit helps, she said. “Working 10 hours a week in an office and working summer and winter breaks, I could set aside some money for living expenses and book fees.”

Other pan­elists included Lucille Jordan, pres­i­dent of Nashua Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Nashua, N.H., and Roshni Mir­chan­dani, a junior at North­eastern. Richard Doherty, pres­i­dent of the asso­ci­a­tion of Inde­pen­dent Col­leges and Uni­ver­si­ties in Mass­a­chu­setts, mod­er­ated the discussion.