For Poor Students, Getting into College Is Harder Than It Seems

Many people believe a college education can help any hard working person. But not everyone is able to attend a college or university. One common barrier is money. The College Board collects information about colleges and universities across the United States. The organization recently investigated how much it costs Americans to attend a publicly-supported, four-year college in their home state. It found that the average cost for a single student for the 2016-2017 school year is $20,090. Yet the U.S. higher education system does have other choices. There are two-year community colleges and private four-year universities. Also, students must consider what financial aid can do for them. For example, after including federal financial aid, the College Board found that the average yearly cost of a four-year public college is $14,210. However, this assistance still is not enough for some. The American Council on Education (ACE) studies issues related to higher education. A 2015 ACE report used Department of Commerce information to show a decrease in the number of low income students enrolling in college. These men and women have little money available to pay college costs or come from poor families. The report showed the percentage of American college students considered to be low income went from 55.9 in 2008 to 45.5 in 2013. Yet the ACE reported that spending on all forms of financial aid increased by about $41 billion during that time. So now, a group of 30 colleges and universities are taking action. They have all agreed to be part of the American Talent Initiative (ATI). Launched in December, the ATI is a project from a non-profit leadership organization called the Aspen Institute. It also receives support from the higher education research group Ithaka S+R. Their goal? To increase the total number of low-income men and women studying at these 30 schools to 480,000 by the year 2025. Josh Wyner is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. He says one of the reasons this goal is so important is because of the value diversity adds to education. Students from different races and cultures help each other see and understand the world differently, he says. But students from different income backgrounds also have knowledge to share. And, Wyner notes, ensuring equal chances for everyone is an important part of the American identity. "While there are schools … that have done really good work in this area, it remains the case that … there is still somewhat limited opportunity for students from lower income backgrounds ... So I think … If we believe in the American dream, which is that hard work should enable you to go as far you talents can take you, we’ve got to do something about this." Wyner admits this can be a problem. Any school wishing to join the program must have at least a high graduation rate. Seventy percent of the students must successfully complete their study program. But only 270 of the thousands of U.S. colleges and universities meet this requirement. And the 30 schools currently involved are all different. Some are large, public research colleges. Others are small private universities. The problem also has several causes, Wyner adds. For example, one reason there are so few low-income students in college is a lack of recruiting. Wyner says schools not only need to find better ways of finding low and middle-income students with the ability to succeed....

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