College, No Longer the Economic Leveler

My program is beginning renewed focus on recruiting and retaining diverse students.    In these many conversations, it can be easy for even  those already committed to diversity to loose track of how much has changed since we were students ourselves.  Even on a campus as diverse as mine, the financial struggles of our students can be invisible to those of us making decisions about how we’ll structure program requirements.  We never hear from students who consider our programs but never apply, and students who leave “because I need to work for awhile” rarely stop on the way out to tell us about why they see few other choices.

So we rely on other voices.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Suzanne Mettler wrote

Ordinary young Americans who hoped college could be their route to a better future are the victims of a perfect storm of political winds

Mettler documents three main policy shifts working against low-income young people who believe in opportunity through education:

  1. While Pell grants covered 80% of the costs of a four year degree in the 70’s, they now cover only 31% of the average cost of a degree.
  2. State funding for higher ed has dwindled, leaving fewer resources for student support, even as tuition soars.
  3. Congressional deregulation has diverted financial aid to for-profits, where high tuition funnels to shareholders at tax-payers’ expense.

It is easy for faculty and staff to make vague reference to the “financial aid” available to our students without realizing how much financial aid has changed since many of us were students.  According to Mettler:

For those from the richest fifth, the annual cost of attending a public four-year college has inched up from 6 percent of family income in 1971 to 9 percent in 2011. For everyone else, the change is formidable. For those in the poorest fifth, costs at State U have skyrocketed from 42 percent of family income to 114 percent.

It’s a maxim in our program that our students can’t teach those they don’t know.

It’s growing more and more impossible to do planning in my program without knowing a great deal more about the financial constraints that many of our students now face.



FAFSA as Barrier

Yet more on the ways that the complications of financial aid forms may discourage low-income students from attending college:  This study by Mary Feeney at the University of Illinois Chicago found that the students most needing financial aid were most likely to miss deadlines, in part because of confusing directions, shifting deadlines, complications in getting parents’ financial information, and misunderstandings about whether they actually are eligible for financial aid.

“Completing the application requires a considerable amount of effort and social capital — personal networks that students can draw on to gain information,” Feeney said. “Students who have access to an adult who understands the process — a relative, guidance counselor, clergy member, or someone at a neighborhood association — are significantly more likely to complete the form and attend college.”

I grow weary of how often I hear that we depend on people outside of colleges and universities to communicate  basic information about getting into and then succeeding in college, all the while pretending that access to college is a level playing field.