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IHEP Report Urges Support for Working Poor Trying to Earn Degrees

When Rachel Mayo decided to attend Northeastern
University in Boston,
she wasn’t deterred by the $31,500 tuition the private research institution

 “I have told
myself that when it comes to my education money is never a factor. My knowledge
is worth so much more,” says Mayo, who soon found out that money was indeed a
factor. Even with financial aid, the middle child of eight had to work her way
though school and take out loans of $20,000 each year.

Mayo’s story is far from unique. According
to a new report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, College Access
for the Working Poor: Overcoming Burdens to Succeed in Higher Education,

this is the story of nearly 20 million working adults, 24-64, who don’t have
access to college or the means to fund their children’s education.

In order for America
to be able to compete globally, the report says, it must first support the
working poor earn degrees.

“Higher education brings higher pay
and new opportunities to the working poor, as well as social benefits,” says
Jamie Merisotis, president of IHEP. “It is therefore essential that the working
poor have the same opportunities to enter and complete college.”

During the 2003-2004 academic year,
according to the report, 47 percent of working poor adults were enrolled in an
higher education institution half time or less. Even with financial aid, they
had to pay an average cost of $4,000, which they could not afford. The research
findings are based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal

The report also states that the
children of the working poor are the ones that suffer the consequence of their
parents not having a degree. Among students living slightly above the poverty
line, 37 percent were first-generation college students, compare to 19 percent
from higher income families.  

The cost of college, as the report
tells and Mayo’s story demonstrates, along with family responsibilities are
among the obstacles that prevents working poor adults from attending college
fulltime or be able to pursue a college education at all.

USA Funds, a leading loan generator
that works to enhance access to postsecondary education, sponsored the study.
Henry Fernandez, its executive director of access and outreach, says the report
only confirmed what the organization already knew.

Fernandez says the problem needs
national attention from both government and corporate America.

“We and corporate America
need to know that it is our responsibility to offer tuition support to our own
employees,” says Fernandez. “The investment we will have on our employees’
education will have a payoff greater than our financial investment.”

To move the poor forward, policies
and programs should be developed that target their specific needs, and not
lumped together as one relief effort, the report suggests. It also recommends
more outreach into low-income families to teach “college knowledge.”

Mayo, now in her third year at NU,
says she is still not letting money be a barrier between her and her dream of a
college degree. Although she works two jobs while attending school, she hopes
to raise her 3.3 GPA to 3.5 GPA needed for a full scholarship.

Fernandez says the report will be
used to lobby on the state and federally level to get policy and grant makers
to pay attention to the challenges of the working poor who are often forgotten
or overlooked.

– Margaret Kamara

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