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Navigating the Low-Income Gap


There is a significant disparity between low-income and high-income students when it comes to obtaining a degree. While many underprivileged students don’t receive merit-based scholarships, there are other options.

Growing up, Sarah Ashcraft knew that she was going to attend college. Though born to two teenage parents who never attended college nor had held more than minimum wage jobs, she was also born the granddaughter of an educator, Rita Ashcraft, who retired from her long career in teaching to take care of Sarah. For most of her childhood, it was just Sarah and Rita; her grandfather died when she was four, and her mother moved out when she was in third grade. Though finances were often tight, Sarah recalls learning the value of education at a young age.

Sarah and her family always knew that she would pursue higher education. How they would make college work financially, however, was a different story. She had four siblings living off of her dad’s one-man salary and her maternal grandmother recently had hip replacement. With these expensive costs, she said not much money was left to help her pay for college.

Sarah is not alone; millions of college students like her face the possibility of missing out on higher education because of their financial situations. A person’s chances of obtaining a degree decrease alarmingly when they come from a low-income family, a term loosely defined as a family making less than twice the federal poverty level.

Just one in 10 people from low-income families obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 25 in contrast to one in two people from high-income families, states a report done by the White House in January 2014. There are several barriers that contribute to this disparity.

An obvious and yet often insurmountable barrier to college for low-income students is the rising price of tuition and expenses. The average tuition and fee price for in-state, four-year public universities was $9,410 during the 2015-2016 school year, according to the College Board. This does not include the additional costs of room and board, supplies, and textbooks. These expenses can be daunting for low-income students, deterring them from considering college a viable option.

As she considered schools, Sarah felt the burden of these expenses acutely. She knew that she should pursue the cheapest option possible, but as she deliberated, her experience meant more to her than her finances. She realized she didn’t just want a degree. She wanted the full on-campus experience.

“I could have probably attended a community college and stayed at home working my way through. Without financial aid, college would have been of a lower quality with less opportunity. I would have had to work a full-time job, in addition to taking care of a home and attending school full-time,” she explained.

Though living at home and going to a community college is an option, it can keep students from the formative experience of living among peers and away from family. With the encouragement of her grandmother, Sarah decided to pursue education at a four-year university instead of a community college. Finances, however, still hung over her head; she began applying for scholarships.

Meagan Mullen, a senior at Ball State University, found the kind of assistance Sarah was hoping for. During middle school, a counselor came into Meagan’s class to talk about the 21st Century Scholar Program. The program is funded by the state of Indiana and is in place to aid students from low-income families with college tuition. At the time, Meagan’s parents had recently split up and her mother’s work was unstable. They filled out the application, and by the end of eighth grade, Meagan already knew her college tuition was paid for. This early financial security allowed a sense of peace in high school that many low-income students lack.

During college, 21st Century and other awards have freed up Meagan’s time to be more involved on campus. She has been heavily involved in housing and student government throughout her time at Ball State and is currently serving as treasurer on the Student Government Executive Board.

“I don’t think I would have been nearly as involved. I probably still would have joined a couple clubs, but I wouldn’t have been nearly as committed to those because I would have had to work,” she explained.

While there are many grants available at the state level of government nationwide, the 21st Century Scholar Program is unique in the amount of coverage it supplies. Emily Sellers, the director of outreach and engagement for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, says they are only aware of two other states (Oklahoma and Washington) with similar programs. The program has helped make Indiana first in the midwest and seventh in the nation for distributing need-based financial aid.

“At our core, we want to make sure more Hoosier students have the opportunity to earn a postsecondary credential. We are pretty proud that throughout the 25 year history this program has been supported across party lines and political affiliations,” she said.

Nationally, the Pell Grant is the most common government grant given to American students from low-income families. Under the Obama administration, the Pell Grant maximum was increased by more than $900.

Many students depend on these federal aid programs to help them get through school. At Ball State alone, 38 percent of students in Fall 2014 were using the Pell Grant to help pay their tuition, as reported by the Institute of Education Sciences. Meagan is also not alone; additionally, 30 percent of Ball state students were using grants funded through state or local government during Fall 2014.  

Universities also attempt to alleviate the financial burdens of college, explained John McPherson, assistant vice president of enrollment services at Ball State. Once federal and state grants are subtracted from a student’s need, the university works to meet as much of the remaining need as possible. Though the university is able to help many students, John is sometimes frustrated by the lack of resources.

“Any time there is an economic recession it is very hard on families, and many times we don’t have an answer because there’s just not enough resources to help. You’re trying to figure out who needs the resources the most, and how do you allocate those limited funds to the people who need it? That’s kind of a struggle.”

John also explained that the university gives a financial seminar during freshman orientation to educate both students and families. Sarah remembers the financial seminar at her orientation well, but not for the help it gave.

“I started crying during the financial seminar. I told my grandma that if we couldn’t afford it then I could go somewhere else, it wasn’t a big deal. She just kept saying it would be fine and that we could do it. So I trusted her and I went.” Though she had been given some aid and small awards, it wasn’t enough to cover her education at Ball State. Sarah continued to apply for scholarships and seriously considered transferring to a community college throughout her freshman year.

Despite limited funding, the country’s investment in low-income students becomes crucial when examining the financial progress that can be made when low-income students obtain a degree. A student’s chances of making it out of the bottom fifth increase by 50 percent when he or she graduates from college, a White House report found.

This information brings the stakes to a higher level; without a college degree, the chance of getting out of a low-income situation and increasing one’s financial standing dramatically decreases.   

After months of worry, one scholarship came through. Sarah received an email in April of 2014 telling her she was a finalist for The Dream Award, a scholarship fund sponsored by popular news anchor Katie Couric. She was flown out for a taping of Katie in May with other finalists.

When they announced, after some suspense, that all twelve of the finalists would receive awards, Sarah said she exhaled as tears started rolling down her face.

“Come on, it’s okay, get up and be happy!” Katie told her.

Sarah felt a tremendous amount of joy. She looked out into the audience where her aunt and grandmother were bawling.

Now in her second semester of junior year and on a study-abroad in London, Sarah couldn’t be more grateful for the aid she has earned.

However, Sarah knows the larger problem is far from being fixed. She believes that ultimately, the United States will have to increase access to education for low-income citizens if they want to continue to succeed as a nation.

“I think if we want a population with an average intelligence level [that is] that of an undergraduate college degree, then we should provide it like we provide K-12 [education]. Not everyone has access to attend college, and for that reason they seem ignorant, but in reality we are ignorant for thinking that everyone has the same opportunities.”

Though the country continues to grapple with the best solution to college accessibility, it is clear that often, the grit and determination of low-income students can carry them past seemingly impassible financial barriers toward a brighter future.

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