Low-income kids are ‘priced out’ of college

Only five of the nation’s 1,186 four-year colleges and universities give low-income students a reasonable chance to earn a bachelor’s degree at an affordable cost, concludes a new Education Trust report, Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial-Aid Policies Hurt Low-Income Students (pdf).  A sixth, Berea College in Kentucky, charges no tuition.

Ed Trust looked at what students pay after receiving financial aid.  The average low-income family must spend 72 percent of annual household income to send one child to a four-year college. Middle-class families contribute 27 percent of household income and wealthy families spend 14 percent.

Ed Trust looked for colleges with a net price (total attendance cost minus total grant aid) of $4,600 or less, a graduation rate of at least 50 percent, and at least 30 percent enrollment by students from low-income families. Not a single public flagship university made the list. The only private non-profit was Berea, a liberal arts school with no net price. It’s free.

With a focus on the Appalachian region, Berea largely enrolls students of modest means, and manages to support their studies through a sizeable endowment, required work-study, and a “plain living” budget. The college can point to academic success as well, having boosted its six-year graduation rate from 50 percent in 2002 to 65 percent in 2009.

The affordable public universities are: the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, two City University of New York (CUNY) schools, Queens College and Baruch College, and Fullerton State and Long Beach State in California.

All are based in states which outpace their peers in providing need-based financial aid. What’s more, each of the five universities has a clear commitment to closing gaps of access and success between high-income and low-income students, and between students of color and white students.

Pell Grants for low-income students are under attack in Congress. If the rapidly growing grant program is cut, it will be even harder for low-income students to afford college.

At low-cost colleges — especially community colleges — Pell Grants cover tuition and students’ living expenses. That encourages people to enroll for the grant money, even if they’re not serious about taking classes. “Pell runners” who lose eligibility for aid at one college, enroll at another, hoping nobody checks their record.

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