By Stephen Burd
Nearly 170,000 of the top high-school graduates from low- and moderate-income families are not enrolling in college this year because they cannot afford to do so, according to a report released on Wednesday (June 26, 2002) by a group that advises Congress and the U.S. Education Department.
The report, by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, warns that unless the federal government and the states revitalize their need-based student-aid programs, millions more will be locked out of college by the end of the decade.
“If we as a nation cannot guarantee access for low-income high-school graduates who are college-qualified today, we have little chance of addressing the access challenges in the future,” Juliet V. Garcia, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the chairwoman of the advisory committee, said at a news conference on Wednesday.
The report is a follow-up to one the panel released last year, titled “Access Denied,” which said that inadequate finances were the primary barrier keeping many of the neediest students from pursuing a higher education. In the earlier report, the committee accused the federal government, states, and colleges of abandoning the neediest students by shifting resources away from need-based aid to bolster more politically popular programs that aim to make higher education more affordable for middle-class families.
Some higher-education researchers and policy analysts attacked that report, however, accusing the advisory committee of ignoring evidence showing that the reason many low-income students do not go to college is that they are not academically prepared to go. Throwing money at students who are not ready for college work may be setting them up for failure, those researchers said.
The advisory committee’s new report, titled “Empty Promises: The Myth of College Access in America,” seeks to refute those criticisms by showing that finances are a huge barrier even for low-income students who are among the most qualified to attend four-year colleges. To do so, the panel cites data from a research project conducted by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.
The National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 is a survey of a representative sample of 14,000 high-school freshmen that year. The depart-ment’s researchers surveyed those students every two years thereafter, through 1994. In that study, the Education Department identifies “college qualified” students as those who have met minimum course, grade-point, and, in some cases, test-score requirements to qualify to attend a four-year college.
According to the advisory committee’s report, those data show that:
62 percent of college-qualified high-school seniors from low-income families (those with incomes below $25,000) test for and apply to a four-year college, compared with 91 percent of qualified, high-school seniors from high-income families.
52 percent of qualified high-school graduates from low-income families enroll at a four-year college, compared with 83 percent of qualified graduates from high-income families.
22 percent of qualified high-school graduates from low-income families do not enroll in any type of college at all, compared with only 4 percent of qualified graduates from high-income families.
43 percent of qualified high-school graduates from moderate-income families (those with incomes from $25,000 to $49,999) do not enroll in a four-year college, and 16 percent do not enroll in any type of postsecondary institution.
The report found that the main economic obstacle to financing a college education faced by students from low-income families was a shortage of federal and state grant aid. With the declining purchasing power of the Pell Grant over the past two decades, and lackluster support for need-based aid in the states, low-income students and their families are finding that they are responsible for covering a larger and larger share of college costs, through loans, work-study, and their own paychecks and savings.
According to the report, low-income high-school graduates attending a public four-year college have to pick up a tab of about $7,500, or two-thirds of their college expenses each year, after all grant aid is expended. For families making $25,000 or less a year, such costs can be prohibitive, the report states.
“This constitutes over one-third of the income for a low-income family’s budget,” said Ms. Garcia. “Given a financial barrier like this, it’s not surprising at all, then, that the educational expectations, the plans, the actual enrollment, and persistence behavior to degree completion of low-income graduates fall far short of their peers who are better off financially.”
Using data from the earlier longitudinal study, the advisory committee’s report estimates that financial barriers are keeping a total of more than 400,000 “college qualified” low- and moderate-income high-school graduates out of a four-year college this year, with almost half of those students not going to college at all.
In addition to calling for substantial increases in the Pell Grant Program, the report calls on the federal government to create greater incentives for states to increase their own need-based aid programs and for colleges to hold down their tuition prices and fees.
David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said that the panel’s report gives federal lawmakers not only “a staggering picture of how financial barriers can affect hundreds of thousands of academically qualified, low-income college students each year, but also a road map for how Congress can lower those hurdles.”
Reprinted from the “Chronicle of Higher Education,” June 27, 2002.