Can Low Income Students Succeed in Higher Education?

Can Low Income Students Succeed in Higher Education?

Most people would agree that every student has a right to receive a college education. The problem for low income students is that they have more than a financial challenge to overcome; they also have fewer options with regards to their access for higher education or the schools that may consider their application. And the higher education choices made by this group have come into question because these students may not be graduating or if they do graduate, they may be unable to pay their student loan debt. The needs of low income students are being addressed through governmental actions – the question is will this be enough to help them?

Financial Challenges

As a general rule, low income students need financial aid in order to go to college. In a study by The Education Trust called Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial-Aid Policies Hurt Low-Income Students, the finances of students and their families were examined to determine their ability to pay for a college education. The study found that even after factoring in grant money received, “the average low-income family must contribute an amount roughly equivalent to 72 percent of its annual household income each year just to send one child to a four-year college.” This is in sharp contrast to middle-class families that contribute 27 percent of their annual household income and high-income families that contribute 14 percent. These percentages do not seem unrealistic given the level of income when compared to the cost of tuition. In other words, the higher the income the less the family is paying for education as an overall percentage.

Access to Education

If students have an ability to obtain financial aid (grants and loans), would they choose to attend any school? Surprisingly, the answer is no. In The New York Times article Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite, it was noted that “many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home,” and “doing so makes them less likely to graduate from college at all, research has shown.” In the article Low-Income Students’ Financial Barrier to Higher Education, it was suggested that “while funding and graduation rates aren’t totally in the hands of any given institution, something that is completely in their power is how many low-income students they admit, and it’s clear that many schools could work on that number.” These articles suggest that low income students are not granted admission to the institutions as students in other income brackets.

The issue of graduation rates is also an important consideration by lawmakers and governmental agencies when reviewing the status of low income students. An article in The New York Times, Colleges Are Failing in Graduation Rates, reported that “lower-income students “” even when they are better qualified “” often go to colleges that excel in producing dropouts,” and more importantly, “the United States does a good job enrolling teenagers in college, but only half of students who enroll end up with a bachelor’s degree.” This is a statement with a powerful impact and its implication far-reaching as the higher education system in the United States is often viewed as one of the best worldwide. Yet it seems that a group of students is being under-served.

William Bowen (an economist and former Princeton president) and Michael McPherson (an economist and former Macalester College president) co-authored Crossing the Finish Line. They utilized records of 200,000 students at 68 higher education institutions and found that affordability is an issue for low income students, along with an acceptable culture of failure that is pervasive in higher education institutions. The authors concluded that “the only way to lift the college graduation rate significantly is to lift it among poor and working-class students.” They also suggest that addressing completion rates could also improve and boost the economy.

Another choice that low income students have made is to turn to the for-profit schools. Many argue that students are enrolled in these schools not because they are the best choice, but the only available option and/or they are succumbing to clever marketing campaigns. A Huffington Post article For-Profit Colleges Draw Minorities, Stir Murky Debate On Student Success notes that “as the for-profit college sector has tripled in size over the past decade – attracting government scrutiny over aggressive recruiting and poor student outcomes – so has the rate of enrollment for low-income and minority students.”  The blanket terms used by the for-profit industry for their students include “non-traditional“ and “working adults” to signify that they have unique needs and these phrases are meant to include low income students.

In the Time article Are For-Profit Colleges Targeting Low-Income Students?, a report is referenced that “shows low-income students enroll in for-profit schools at four times the rate of other students once again,” and more importantly, it “raises questions over whether for-profit colleges target the most vulnerable students in order to line their pockets.” The article does acknowledge that supporters of the industry believe that for-profit schools offer access to education that these students might not otherwise find.

Changes Made and On the Horizon

A question often comes up concerning allowances or additional considerations for low income students. As noted in Low-Income Students’ Financial Barrier to Higher Education “education is one of our great democratic institutions,” as it “levels the playing field, in a way – its purest form requires no prerequisite social standing or privilege; it allows people to reach their fullest potential based solely on their interests and aptitudes.” A survey by The Education Trust is cited in which 63% of the participants indicated that by serving the needs of low income students the economy overall will benefit. What steps have been taken to bring about academic equality?

One highly publicized change was the Gainful Employment rule, which was proposed in 2010 and finalized in 2011 by the Department of Education. Initially it would have greatly restricted the access to financial aid for the for-profit industry, if certain criteria (involving student debt levels) were not met. The final regulation guidelines stated that “to qualify for Federal aid, the law requires that most for-profit programs and certificate programs at nonprofit and public institutions prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” At present, for-profit institutions have a specified time to produce records concerning students’ debt and repayment levels.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has recently discussed another new development in the article Senate Bill Would Create Online Accounts to Track Students’ Progress and Help Them Save for College. Introduced by the Senate this year, “the bill, which is called the American Dream Accounts Act of 2012 and has bipartisan support, would create password-protected “˜dream accounts’ that would serve a dual purpose as college-savings accounts and as a way to track individual students’ academic performance from elementary school through higher education.”

I wanted to learn more about this pending act and went to the source, the American Dream Accounts Act of 2012. The purpose of the bill is to “award grants in order to establish longitudinal personal college readiness and savings online platforms for low-income students.” The following are highlights from the proposal:
“¢    The list of Congressional findings include: “Only 9.8 out of every 100 individuals from low-income families will graduate from an institution of higher education before reaching the age of 24.”
“¢    In addition: “Lack of knowledge about how to apply to, and pay for, an institution of higher education is a barrier for many low-income students and students who would be in the first generation in their families to attend an institution of higher education.”
“¢    The term “˜”˜American Dream Account” means “a personal online account for low-income students that monitors higher education readiness and includes a college savings account.”
“¢    The term “˜”˜low-income student” for this bill means “a student who is eligible to receive a free or reduced price lunch under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act.”

Additional developments reported this year in the U.S. News education post Obama Proposal May Address Growing Education Gap, is that President Obama’s 2013 Budget Request will retain (and increase) the Pell grants for 2013, along with provisions for low-income students that include “changes to the Perkins loan program, increases to the federal work-study program, and limits on the interest subsidy on subsidized Stafford loans, which are available to low and middle-income students.”

It appears that there are no quick answers to resolving these issues. Low income students have access to financial aid and yet they do not have full access to all academic institutions. Many of these students have turned to community colleges and the for-profit schools; however, graduation rates have not improved. As an instructor within the for-profit industry I have witnessed its phenomenal growth and then the sharp decline that began in 2010. While I do not know the exact background of my students, which means I am unable to determine if they are from a low income household, I do learn something about them through introductions posted at the start of class.

Many students began their undergraduate programs at a disadvantage because they either lacked prior academic experience, did not have a strong support system, did not have the finances available to purchase the technology required, and more importantly, their background often established a mindset of struggle and failure that influenced their perception of learning. While it is admirable that new regulations and laws are being considered to offer financial support, I believe the recipe for success is going to require an academic mind shift. Low income students often need additional support and resources – and if these needs are met, perhaps their graduation rates will improve, along with their earnings potential.

What do you believe is needed to help low income students succeed? Share your opinion via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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