Report: Low-Income Students “Priced-Out” of College

A new report from the Education Trust suggests that only a handful of colleges are prepared to meet the needs of lower-income students.

The report, “Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial Aid Policies Hurt Low-Income Students” looks at 1,186 colleges nationwide, which had comparable data on what lower-income students pay for college.

Success was measured in three key areas: colleges must enroll a proportion of low-income students comparable to the national average, low-income students must pay a portion of their family income that is no greater than what is paid by the average middle-income student and students must have a decent chance of graduating – about 50 percent.

“Of these, only five open their doors to a proportion of low-income students,” the authors Mamie Lynch, Jennifer Engle and Jose L. Cruz write.

It’s notable that the schools who do meet the criteria: California State University-Fullerton and Long Beach, CUNY’s Bernard M. Baruch and Queens and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro—are part of state systems which have taken proactive measures to lower access and achievement gaps between lower- and higher-income students, as well as Whites and minorities.

At CUNY, for example, lower-income students can participate in the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) program, which provides both educational and financial support.

Even so, all of these five colleges enroll lower-income students at a far lower-rate than other colleges. And despite their comparative wealth, the vast majority of public flagship universities do not target their financial aid to students who need it the most.

Even under less strict criteria, results were mixed. Fifty-five public universities have a “net price” below $4,600. Ten private nonprofit universities meet this threshold. But “not a single for-profit” institution meets this requirement, contrary to the widely-held assumption that they operate with underserved and minority students in mind.

Dr. James Minor, director of Higher Education Programs at the Southern Education Foundation, says that the report’s findings are not surprising for researchers who had been studying the issue for some time.

In recent years, colleges have paid lip service to making college more affordable and accessible. But policy doesn’t always bear that out, he says.

“We’ve referred to it personally as ‘policy incongruence,’” says Minor.

In this sense, he says, a little funding could go a long way. Policymakers should develop targeted policies that identify where minority and lower-income students are more likely to enroll. These institutions typically receive the least amount of state support.

“Even in institutions where we’ve seen successes—where institutions have been able to control costs to make college affordable, and at the same time have been successful in graduating students—they probably could do more with sufficient funding,” says Minor.

The authors say that lawmakers at the federal and state level should consider how their policies affect low-income students. More specifically, they say that the bulk of financial aid should be given to those in need, and that the awards be large enough to ensure that lower-income students are not excluded from more competitive colleges.

“Evidence suggests that policies on financial aid can positively influence college aspirations, access and success,” the authors conclude.