Low Income Students Struggle to Enter Academia

Aug 22, 2011

Earlier this month, nonprofit advocacy group Education Trust released an alarming report that suggests students from low-income families are drastically underserved by higher ed institutions. As college costs surge upward and financial aid dries up, a postsecondary education is increasingly out of reach for many young people.

By Douglas Fehlen


College Unaffordable for Many

Is it possible that only five higher ed institutions in the U.S. are making college an affordable reality for low-income students? That is the damning conclusion of a new report prepared by Education Trust, an organization that addresses inequities in education. The report reveals that severe and widespread economic impediments make it difficult for many young people to attend college.

For its analysis, Education Trust identified 'relatively conservative criteria on affordability, access and quality.' First schools had to cost no more than $4,600 a year (after grants) for individuals living in households with incomes of $30,000 or less. Institutions also were required to matriculate at least half of students within six years. Finally, at least 30% of a school's students were required to be Pell Grant recipients for the institution to be considered affordable.

When all of the numbers were crunched, only five institutions met Education Trust's standard of affordability: Baruch College and Queens College of the City University of New York, the Fullerton and Long Beach campuses of California State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. José Cruz, one of the report's co-authors, opined, 'Low-income students who have worked hard, played by the rules and done what's been asked of them academically are not getting the support they need to pay for college.'

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Calls for Greater Opportunity

The Education Trust report states that the rising cost of college is not the only factor putting higher ed out of reach for many low-income students. Financial aid policies are also having an effect. According to the report, institutions' grants are increasingly benefiting middle class and affluent individuals rather than students who demonstrate the greatest financial need. Private institutions provide almost twice as much in financial support for affluent students as they do for low-income students. The report notes that at some schools fewer than ten percent of enrollees receive Pell Grants, an indicator of financial need; nationally, about 30% of students receive this form of aid.

Public institutions are not exempt from the report's scathing analysis, and flagship institutions are especially excoriated for not providing greater access. Analysis reveals fewer low-income students are attending these schools, with declines extending back to the 1990s. Education Trust president Kati Haycock suggests schools today 'give more of their precious financial-aid dollars to students who demonstrate little or no need. As a result,' she continues, 'too many low-income students of promise are being systematically shut out of an affordable college education.'

Education Trust has correlated findings from its report with statistics on earned bachelor's degrees. Data reveals that 80% of students from families in the highest income quartile have earned a 4-year degree by age 24. Among students coming from families in the lowest income quartile, only eight percent have earned bachelor's degrees. The study's authors suggest that significant policy changes in institutions as well as at the state and federal levels are needed to offset such trends. Jennifer Engle, co-author of the report, concludes, 'In America, access to a good education should not be determined by whether your family can afford to pay for it.'

Learn about difficult financial factors affecting public higher ed institutions - and how they're limiting opportunity among students.

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