Low-Income Students' Financial Barrier to Higher Education

Jun 29, 2011

Some consider higher education a private good, a sorting mechanism of class and intelligence. Others look at it more democratically, as a chance for students of all types to learn things about themselves and the world they wouldn't otherwise have access to. If you're in the latter camp, you may be troubled by a study recently released by advocacy group The Education Trust that shows just how difficult it is for low-income students to garner access to college.

By Eric Garneau


The Background

It almost sounds unbelievable, but Education Trust has concluded that out of the 1,186 colleges and universities in the United States with available net cost data, only five really do a good job meeting the needs of low-income students - that's less than half of one percent of schools in the U.S. Clearly this is a significant problem affecting the world of higher education. What causes it, and what can be done?

The Research

To arrive at their conclusion, EdTrust applied a series of filters to available data on U.S. college cost and enrollment. First, they eliminated all institutions that asked low-income students to pay a higher proportion of their family's income for an education than mid-income students were required to spend. That left only 65 schools (55 public and ten private not-for-profit) standing.

Next, EdTrust wanted to find out which of those schools gave their pupils a fair chance of success. To do so, they eliminated any institution with less than a 50% graduation rate. This way, in theory, low-income students would have a 1:2 chance of leaving school with a degree. After that cut, only 29 schools were left (the ten private schools plus 19 public institutions).

Finally, EdTrust sought out those schools that served a reasonable number of low-income students - at least 30%, in keeping with the national average. At the end of that elimination round, only five schools remained.

The Reasons

Why do so few schools adequately serve the low-income population? It's especially shocking when one considers that there are whole groups of institutions - private for-profit and state flagship universities - that pride themselves on affordable, accessible education. In actuality, many for-profit institutions have sky-high tuition rates and abysmal graduation statistics; according to EdTrust, they're responsible for 47% of U.S. student loan defaults. As for public flagships, while some are exceptionally affordable, none of them enroll a proportionate number of low-income students, possibly in an attempt (albeit misguided) to keep up rankings and prestige.

EdTrust also gives some attention to prestigious private universities that could use their sizable endowments to encourage more diverse economic representations among their student bodies. Generally, though, such institutions enroll only a tiny amount of low-income students. However, EdTrust does point out 10 private schools that actually control costs significantly better than the flagship school in their state, among them Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale.

The Answers

When it comes to making higher education more accessible for low-income students, there are no overnight fixes. However, EdTrust's research hints at a few ways to help. While funding and graduation rates aren't totally in the hands of any given institution, something that is completely in their power is how many low-income students they admit, and it's clear that many schools could work on that number. Further, private institutions with large endowments can choose to more democratically spend that money instead of giving it to students who can more easily afford college.

A fair part of the education access burden also rests with the government. While federal Pell Grants surely help low-income students, grant money seldom keeps pace with rising tuition costs. Additionally, often times grants end up going to students from mid- and high-income households who'd probably go to college anyway. For low-income students, those grants may mean all the difference.

Some may reasonably ask why schools should make special provisions for low-income students. EdTrust argues that education is one of our great democratic institutions. It 'levels the playing field,' in a way - its purest form requires no prerequisite social standing or privilege; it allows people to reach their fullest potential based solely on their interests and aptitudes. To bolster their argument, EdTrust cites a recent survey where 63% of respondents reported they believed educational equality was a 'very effective' way of jump-starting the economy, winning out over middle-class tax cuts and lowering the federal deficit. Support for educational equality's out there. We just have to figure out the best way to make it happen.

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