Only 5 US Colleges Serve Low-Income Students Well

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.

Says the report, Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial-Aid Policies Hurt Low-Income Students:

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.


Ashlyinebroke A.
Ashlyinebroke A2 years ago

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Catt R.
Catt R5 years ago

colleges now have "internships" for EVERY program... let me tell you it is very hard for a low income student to come up with 3k to cover 'the schools cost' to send you somewhere to work 120 hours for no pay----- some schools collect from the company that uses the 'interns' AND from the student..... it really is disheartening to have to pay money to go work for no pay and the schools will not acknowledge your class work until you go find a place that is willing to pay the school for your internship and pay the school out of your own pocket as well ----- my brother died the first day of my last quarter and I stepped down from my intern position to help my mother survive the loss of her son..... I ended up with NOTHING from my 18 months in college ...... they have told me that they will not do the internship unless I am enrolled for a certain number of credits besides the internship credits----- so I get nothing for my time and effort---- I had a 3.7 GPA and it was just a waste of time and money (education loans that I must repay, but got nothing for my effort)

Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

Most of the Social Democracies in Western Europe have free education through the bachelor's level for all students with enough on the ball to really benefit. Why can't we manage to do that? Because our ruling class wants a bunch of ignorant sheep to exploit.

Lori Ann Hone
Lori Hone6 years ago

So disgustingly sad!

KrassiAWAY B.
Krasimira B6 years ago

Not surprised:

Alexandra Rodda
Alexandra Rodda6 years ago

Education should be number one priority for government funding. There is no way out without it. America will become a third world nation without it.

Sara Lima
Sara L6 years ago

priorities 1 = education. health. where are not, should be.

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Suzen R.
Suzen R6 years ago

I am surprised that so few knew this.

Arielle Black-Foley

Sad but not surprising.