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Education Policy Researchers Push For Financial Aid Policies That Help Working-poor Students

A college-access advocacy group wants changes to the federal financial aid policy that penalizes part-time students who have to work to full time to support themselves.

Part-time enrollment places working-poor adults in a precarious position primarily because part-time students receive significantly less financial aid than full-time students, according to a new report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy and USA Funds.

The report revealed that 76 percent of working-poor adults are full-time employees, and despite the commitment to education among those who are attending college, many working-poor adults can only enroll in one or two classes at a time. Only 37 percent of the group in the report was enrolled in school full time.

Additionally, part-time enrollment reduces eligibility for grants and is linked with lower rates of degree attainment. Students who do not work at all typically receive more financial aid, because their expected family contribution, according to FAFSA, is more than working-poor adults, analysts reported.

“The working-poor population see themselves as students first. They want to put their full energy toward attaining a degree,” says Courtney McSwain, research analyst for the IHEP.

But as tuition rises and federal aid fails to keep up, America’s 20 million working poor do not have the financial means to attain a college education or succeed in college. Policymakers at both the state and national level need to expand educational opportunities for low-income adults and youth, a panel of researchers and adult education advocates urged during a briefing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

According to the study, while there are critical barriers keeping the “working poor” from reaching their academic potential, there are also well-researched solutions to increase access.

Working-poor adults, as defined by the IHEP, are adults ages 24 to 64 working slightly more than part-time, with family incomes that place them at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. This demographic is mostly made up of young adults ages 24 to 34 and people of color. Underrepresented minorities compose the largest percent of working-poor adults at 48 percent, followed by women at 64 percent.

Among working-poor adults who worked full time in 2005, the average annual income was slightly more than $19,000 compared with non-poor full-time workers. At the time, the average tuition for a public four-year college or university hovered at $6,000.

Most working-poor students receive some form of financial aid, but they’re unable to cover the out-of pocket expenses associated with college attendance. “The amount of financial aid they receive does not meet all of their financial needs. Even after financial aid, working-poor adults fall an average of $4,000 below the cost to attend college,” McSwain says.

Cost and time constraints prove to be the biggest impediments that working-poor adults face. Heavy work and family responsibilities prevent these individuals from attending college full time.

Low-income adults, like 53-year-old Edna Jean Jackson, are faced with the dilemma of choosing a low-wage job over a postsecondary education or a costly education over the job. Jackson, who is currently enrolled in the Community College of Rhode Island while working part time at a local group home, says she is at a crossroads.

“Some days I wonder if it’s worth it,” says Jackson, who is pursuing an associate degree in human services. “I want to go to school, but I can’t afford it. I had to miss a semester and it was very painful for me.”

Many working-poor adults, unable to balance the work and time constraints, drop out. “In 2001, 49 percent of working-poor adults left college without a degree within six years of enrolling,” McSwain says.

Since beginning college in 2002, Jackson has quit two jobs to focus on her studies.

The report also revealed that working-poor youth, students ages 18 to 23, are facing the same challenges as working-poor adults. The youth are frequently first in their families to go to college and often struggle with family financial constraints. According to the report, only 41 percent of working-poor students had parents who helped pay for books and supplies.

McSwain, the report’s lead author, says government officials can support working-poor adults and youth by providing tax relief. Making the Hope and Lifetime Learning education tax credits available and federal, state, and institutional aid fully tax-free would benefit many low-income students, she says.

Increasing the exempted amount that independent students can earn under federal need analysis and allowing for higher earnings among dependent students, without reducing aid, would also be helpful, suggests McSwain.

–Michelle J. Nealy


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