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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  1. I haven’t read the study, but this does not sound right for the elite schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton… IF (a big IF) you can get in, low-income kids practically go for free.

    I mentioned before that I was the eldest of 4 kids raised by single mom on welfare. When I attended H back in the early 90’s, my family contribution was only $7,000 per year ($2,000 from parents, $3,000 from summer employment + work study during the year, $2,000 federal student loans). The rest was grants from the university, totaling close to $20,000 per year. Later, when I was a junior, my brother entered school (at a public university), and Harvard reduced the parental contribution to only $1,000.

    Today, these elite schools are even more generous… for families under $60,000, there are no loans whatsoever…. it is ALL grants. All my siblings attended public universities and came out with tens of thousands in loans, whereas my total loan debt was around $7,600 for 4 years.

  2. jab–the excerpt said the school had to enroll at least 30% low income kids to count.

    That already makes it a pretty restrictive list– only about 25% of Americans have a bachelor’s degree to begin with, and, of course, families where both parents have degrees are more likely to send the kids to college. They’re also less likely to be “low income.”

    A more interesting (but probably more difficult) study would be to see which schools have the best outcomes for the low income students that they DO admit—broken down by SAT score. Because I’d expect a low-income kid with high SATs to do well pretty much anywhere— I’m more curious about the ones with average SATs…

  3. Joanne – thanks for covering this report. There is no doubt that we need to make sure our universities are accessible to our low-income and first-generation students. This access to our higher education system should be a top priority for our not-for-profit schools and their missions.

    That being said, the report uses data that is already out-of-date. Over the past few years, the major universities (selective private and public schools) have done an amazing job raising funds to specifically meet this need. Schools like Harvard, Duke, Stanford and UVA have all begun to meet 100% of the need through grants. Duke, for example, has said that if families earn less than $60,000 (and meet the asset test), then the family contribution is $0. Of course, there is an expectation that students will work during the school year and summer to help fund a portion of their education, but the money is there for our low-income students.

    It will be interesting to see how this report changes over the next few years as these new programs are integrated and IPEDs and other data sources start to catch up. I hope that there will be a clear indication that our top schools have continued to reach out to provide access to our low-income students.

  4. Is anyone asking if all/most of these kids are prepared for college-level work? The book, City on a Hill, about the CCNY was written about a decade ago, (things may or may not have changed) but the large majority of its American-schooled students were below 9th-grade in knowledge and skills. The only kids doing real college work tended to be in the engineering areas and were recent immigrants prepared in their home countries. I don’t think it’s reasonable to use public money to send seriously unprepared kids to college. Doing so exempts the k-12 system from dealing with their own responsibilities.