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Study: Most Colleges Out of Reach

Study: Most Colleges Out of Reach
For Low-Income Students

A new study on low-income students and financial aid has sparked sharp criticism from higher education groups. The study conducted by the Lumina Foundation for Education found only five states have four-year public colleges that low-income students can afford without financial aid. The study also found that in a third of all states, low-income students need loans even to attend some two-year community colleges.
The Indianapolis-based foundation rated nearly 3,000 colleges and universities and said while at least half the public four-year schools in 40 states are financially manageable for median-income students, those students often need loans. Only Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky and Wyoming have four-year public colleges that are affordable to low-income people, it said.
Critics complain the study flies in the face of reality: 15 million people from all income levels attend college at two- and four-year schools. They also charged the study risks discouraging those who might benefit most from a college degree.
Lumina’s vice president for research, Jerry Davis, says the study focuses on the hardships imposed by paying for college.
“We’re saying students and families must make inordinate financial sacrifices to attend those schools,” Davis says. The struggle to afford college leads some to quit, he says. Davis says he had hoped higher education officials would use the study to help secure more state and federal aid for students.
The study arrives as the recession is both driving up demand for college — as people look to improve their skills and résumés — and the cost of attending, especially at state institutions where about 80 percent of college students are found.
The study used 1998 federal statistics on income, enrollment and financial aid, among other factors. It looked at four income groups: low- and median-income students still dependent on parents’ income, and independent students ages 25-34 with low or median incomes.
Higher education groups say the study’s methods are flawed and could put people off the idea of attending college or certain institutions.
“Enrollments go up every single year,” says Terry Hartle, vice president of the American Council on Education. “If this is correct, there are a lot of people in higher education that aren’t supposed to be there.”
Hartle lauded Lumina’s effort but says it would reinforce mistaken assumptions. Surveys find the public tends to overestimate the cost of a college education, he says.
David Warren, head of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, says the report “misrepresents reality, misleads readers, and harms the very families the foundation is trying to help.”
The topic of cost is “probably one of the touchiest policy issues in higher education right now,” says Travis Reindl, state policy director at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Still, Reindl says it is unfair for the study to label specific schools as “unaffordable.”
“If you’re going to really judge an institution, you have to really dig into the nitty-gritty of what’s happening at the institution,” he says.  

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