Five US colleges do a decent job of serving low-income students, says a report by the advocacy organization The Education Trust. The five are all public universities in states that are leaders in providing need-based financial aid: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, City University of New York (CUNY) Queens College, California State University–Fullerton, CUNY Bernard M. Baruch College and California State University–Long Beach.
Yes, just five out of the US’s 1,200 four-year colleges and universities make college affordable, and possible, for students from low-income families.
The US Department of Education recently released data for every college and university about their “net price,” the amount that families and students must pay after federal, state, local, and institutional grants and scholarships (though not outside scholarships). The Education Trust determined that the colleges they were considering had to cost no more $4,600 a year, again after all other grants for students in households earning up to $30,000 a year were taken into account. The colleges also have a 6-year-graduation rate of at least 50 percent and at least 30 percent of their students had to be recipients of federal Pell Grants.
A sixth college, Berea College was not included in the report’s analysis but was noted. The Kentucky liberal arts college offers free tuition to all students, who all participate in a work program.
The Ed Trust analysis reveals that the average low-income family must pay or borrow an amount roughly equivalent to 72 percent of its annual household income each year — just to send one child to a four-year college.
Middle-class and high-income families fare much better on college costs. They contribute amounts equivalent to just 27 percent and 14 percent of their yearly earnings, respectively.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the report is the “first major study by an outside group of new federal data on colleges’ net price by income.” While noting that the report does set “high standards,” Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, emphasizes that the report shows that more taxpayers’ dollars are needed to help make a college education possible for low-income students. Colleges themselves should do all they can but “serving low-income students well involves policy choices made beyond a college’s doors.”
Jennifer L. Engle, director of higher-education research and policy and one of The Education Trust report’s authors, says she hopes the results will send a strong message to institutions, states, and the federal government “especially as cuts in the Pell Grant program are considered.”
As the number of students rises to unheard-of levels — and the value of a college degree is compounded in an increasingly competitive job market — we can’t shy away from urging state and federal governments to support higher education. As The Education Trust itself points out,
Budget-balancing battles at the state and federal levels threaten to make this bad situation even worse, by cutting grant aid for low-income students. For example, the Pell Grant Program, the cornerstone of federal efforts to make college affordable for these students, faces serious threats in the FY 2012 budget negotiations. The U.S. Senate recently rejected the House of Representatives’ move to slash support for the program, yet it remains unclear how Pell ultimately will fare once the Senate finally drafts its own budget. At stake are the dreams of the more than 10 million Americans who rely on Pell to afford college
College doesn’t have to break the family bank account. But we need to call for, create and support policies that can help low-income students continue their education and expand their chances for brighter future. The five colleges highlighted in the report show that it is possible to make college affordable, if we want to.
Photo of Cal State Long Beach by densetsunopanda.