Low-income students, or those with an annual family income of less than about $40,000, are typically underrepresented on college campuses. There are a variety of factors that cause low-income students to attend college at lower rates than their peers from higher-income backgrounds, including the cost of college, the need to work full time to support themselves or their family financially, and the systematic lack of support in applying to college. However, these obstacles can be overcome with guidance, tailored programs, and scholarships.
Who are low-income students?
Low-income students are those who come from families with annual incomes in the lowest 20% nationally (around $40,000), or below 200% of the federal poverty line. As of January 2018, the poverty line for a family of four was set at $25,100. The poverty line varies depending on the number of family members, with smaller families having a much lower poverty line and larger families needing more money to support all of their members, therefore having a higher poverty line.
Can low-income students go to college?
Absolutely, and they do, albeit at lower rates than their wealthier peers.
The immediate college enrollment rate is a measure used by the National Center for Education Statistics to examine what percentage of students enroll in college by the October after their high school graduation. In 2016, the immediate college enrollment rate for students from high-income families (those with the top 20% of incomes) was 83%, whereas the rate for students from low-income families (those with the lowest 20% of incomes) was 67%. That equates to a 16% gap in immediate college enrollment rates for high- and low-income students. Although this gap shrank from 30% in 2000, it shows that there are still significant barriers preventing students from low-income families from attending college.
What postsecondary options are available? What are the relative costs?
When many people think about the education that comes after high school, they think of a four-year college. Fortunately, there are other postsecondary options available, including community college and vocational school. Typically, community college and vocational schools cost less per credit hour than four-year colleges. However, community colleges and vocational schools offer a limited course selection compared to four-year colleges, which may or may not include your interests. Costs at four-year colleges can be spread out by taking fewer courses per semester, but note that many forms of financial aid require at least half-time enrollment. You may also consider starting your postsecondary education at a community college and transferring to a four-year college to complete your final two years, thereby cutting costs for the first two years.
Costs, too, tend to be higher at private institutions than public ones, and at out-of-state institutions than in-state ones. If you’re hoping to find a college with a low tuition rate, check out public or in-state schools before you turn to private or out-of-state ones. These trends generally hold true whether you’re looking at a community college, vocational school, or four-year college. Furthermore, if you attend a college out-of-state or far from home, you will have to factor in housing costs.
A Next America poll conducted in 2014 by the College Board and National Journal found that 90% of students who immediately went to vocational school, a two-year college, or a four-year college after high school graduation would make that choice again. Alternatively, 54% of those who entered the workforce or military immediately after high school would choose to get more education if they had the chance to do it over again. Consider your long-term goals and your earnings potential before you discount postsecondary education entirely.
What challenges do low-income students face in attending college?
The challenges for low-income students begin with applying to college. According to a report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which examined high-achieving high school seniors from low-income families (with GPAs above 3.8 and SAT or ACT scores in the top 15% nationwide), concerns about the cost of attending college discourage 34% of these students from applying at all. Of those who do decide to apply, 23% do so without the help of a parent, teacher, or counselor; and 44% never visit their top choice school.
Even if they do attend college, graduation rates of low-income students are significantly lower than those of high-income students. While 60% of high-income students graduate from college, only 14% of low-income students do. Factors affecting low-income students’ graduation rates include:
- The cost of college attendance and knowing how to mitigate that cost with financial aid
- The tendency to work while attending school, thereby spending less time on campus and failing to connect with the college and form a meaningful attachment to education
- Setbacks, such as a poor grade or the feeling of not being included, making students feel as though they don’t belong on campus
- The stereotype that students from low-income families are less academically prepared for college than their high income peers and the accompanying self-fulfilling prophecy
Due to the obstacles facing this group when it comes to attending college, including the lack of support during the application process, and because of lower postsecondary graduation rates among low-income students than their wealthier peers, many special resources exist to help low-income students succeed.
What resources are available to low-income students who want to attend college?
There are a variety of resources and opportunities available to low-income students, though many are local or regional, not national. The following are a sampling of what’s available, but not all programs are offered in every state or by each school. If you are interested in programs that partner with your high school or prospective college, or ones that are available in your state, your guidance counselor is an excellent resource.
- CollegePossible: CollegePossible recruits young adults as coaches for low-income high school students. Coaches meet with students after school and in the summer, focusing on standardized test preparation, campus visits, and goal setting during a student’s junior year and on college applications, scholarship applications, and communication skills during a student’s senior year. Coaches even stay in touch with students once they’ve completed high school to offer support through college graduation.
- Dell Scholars Program: The Dell Scholars Program is maintained by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and offers low-income students financial assistance and college coaching. Students who win the scholarship are connected with other winners in an online community as well as with mentors and financial aid coaches who can provide guidance throughout college. Program participants are 25% more likely to complete their bachelor’s degrees within six years of finishing high school than students from similar financial backgrounds.
- iMentor: Based in New York, this organization matches low-income and first-generation students with mentors who encourage them to graduate from high school, as well as to attend and graduate from college. Students work one-on-one with their mentor both in person and online to develop a relationship. Mentors then encourage an interest in college and help with the application process. The program usually lasts three or four years beginning when students are in high school, but can last through college graduation. The program primarily works with students in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco Bay Area schools, but has helped students nationwide.
- MDRC: This organization focuses on solving a wide range of issues faced by low-income students. One program, called Aid Like A Paycheck, distributes financial aid on a fixed biweekly basis instead of as the traditional lump sum, helping students manage their financial aid more like income. Aid Like A Paycheck is currently a pilot program at some community colleges in California and Illinois.
- OneGoal: This program recruits teachers within high schools to lead a program that helps low-income students who are performing below their potential succeed. This three-year program begins as a course for credit during a student’s junior year of high school and continues through the end of their freshman year of college. Students receive help with their college and financial aid applications and continuous academic support.
- QuestBridge: This organization focuses on the college application process and scholarship opportunities for low-income, high-achieving high school juniors and seniors. For high school juniors, the College Prep Scholars Program gives a head start on the college application process. Meanwhile, high school seniors can apply for National College Match, which provides full scholarships (including room and board) to selected finalists.
- The Posse Foundation: The Posse Foundation identifies students who are likely to be successful but “may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes.” Selected students are admitted in groups of 10, called “Posses,” by participating universities. Students receive four-year, full-tuition scholarships and ongoing mentoring throughout college.
What if I can’t afford the fees for college applications and standardized tests?
The ACT, SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP Tests offer testing fee waivers for students. Additionally, you may apply for an application fee waiver from the schools to which you’re applying or through the application platform(s) that you’re using to apply. To be eligible for a fee waiver, you typically must meet at least one of the following criteria:
- You are enrolled in or eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
- Your family’s annual income is within the Income Eligibility Guidelines set by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
- You are enrolled in a federal, state, or local program that helps students from low-income families (for example, a Federal TRIO program, such as Upward Bound).
- Your family receives public assistance.
- You live in federally subsidized public housing or a foster home.
- You are homeless.
- You are a ward of the state or an orphan.
If you have questions about your eligibility for fee waivers, reach out to your guidance counselor. He or she will be able to help you gather the appropriate documents and submit an application.
Are there differences in how colleges perceive a student’s level of financial need?
Yes. Schools can either be need-blind or need-aware when they make admissions decisions. Need-blind schools do not use a student’s ability or inability to pay as a determining factor in admissions decisions; admissions officers only consider applicants’ application materials. Conversely, some schools are need-aware, meaning that a student’s level of financial need is considered along with their application materials in determining whether to offer admission.
Furthermore, some schools have financial aid policies in which they commit to meet the full financial need of admitted students. Keep in mind that your idea of your financial need may be different from the school’s or government’s idea of your financial need. A school will generally take information submitted on the FAFSA or the CSS Profile and use that to calculate your financial need; look at your expected family contribution if you want to have an idea of what you’ll be expected to contribute toward tuition. Even if a school cannot meet your full financial need, they may be able to offer some form of institutional financial aid.
What funding is available to help low-income students pay for college?
Once you’ve figured out how to calculate your out-of-pocket costs and what you can afford on your own, financial aid is the next step. It’s an important factor in deciding how to pay for college, since financial aid can take many forms (scholarships, loans, grants, or work-study). Aid may be from federal, state, or private sources.
- Federal Financial Aid: To receive federal aid, students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form takes into account the number of people living in your household, their income, and household expenses. Using this information, the FAFSA calculates an Expected Family Contribution (EFC), or how much money your family is expected to put toward your education. Students should first fill out the FAFSA during October of their senior year of high school, and it must be resubmitted every year that they are in college thereafter. Schools use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for the following types of aid:
- Pell Grant: This federal grant (which does not have to be repaid) is available to undergraduate students with financial need. For 2018–2019, the maximum award is $6,095, but the amount received is dependent on a student’s level of financial need, their status as a full- or part-time student, whether they are attending school for the full academic year, and the school’s cost of attendance.
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant: Also a federal grant, this award is typically offered to undergraduate students with exceptional financial need. It ranges from $100–$4,000 per year. Schools receive a set amount of money to distribute annually; awards are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. The earlier you submit your financial aid application, the better your odds of receiving a larger award.
- Federal Work-Study Program: This program offers students who can demonstrate financial need a chance to work a part-time job on or near campus. Students who participate will be paid at least federal minimum wage and can choose to have their paychecks applied directly to their outstanding tuition balance.
- Federal loans: Although loans have to be repaid, federal loans offer some advantages over private loans, including grace periods and lower interest rates. Students who decide to take out loans should utilize the maximum amount of federal loans they’re offered before turning to private loans.
- State Financial Aid: Most states offer financial aid to residents who plan on attending a public, in-state institution. This aid may be merit-based or need-based, and is typically applied for by completing the FAFSA.
- Private Financial Aid: Private financial aid comes from a source other than the state or federal government. This may include nonprofit organizations, employers, or banks.
- Private scholarships: These are offered by private companies and organizations, and are available for almost any special interest, anticipated major, or life circumstance. These scholarships have deadlines throughout the year. The Student Caffé blog has information about a variety of scholarship opportunities.
- Private loans: A private loan should be taken out as a last resort, as interest rates are typically higher than those of federal loans, and they offer fewer protections for students.
Will joining the military help me pay for college?
It can, but it is a big commitment that should not be taken lightly.
If you want to join the military and get an education concurrently, ROTC programs are offered by every branch of the military except for the Coast Guard. Although scholarships from these programs can help pay for college, they come with a requirement to serve for a certain number of years after graduation. If you want to work for a certain amount of time before returning to school, enlisting with the intention of earning and using educational benefits later is also an option. However, the time commitment is nothing to joke about.
There are many benefits to joining the military, including monetary educational benefits, medical coverage, a stable paycheck, job security, and more. However the downsides should also be considered, including your legal commitment to serve for a set amount of time, the potential for dangerous deployments, and the need to assimilate into military culture. If your sole reason for considering the military is to get a free education, you should not join the military.
Who should I go to if I need help applying to college?
If your parents don’t know much about the college application process, the guidance counselor at your high school is the next best person to ask for help. He or she is familiar with application procedures, financial aid procedures, and fee waivers. If your guidance counselor is unavailable or you want help from additional sources, ask a teacher, coach, or trusted adult to sit down with you to review your application materials. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to reach out; helping students succeed is what they’re there for!
What supports and programs exist to help low-income students succeed once they’ve applied to or enrolled in college?
For students still in the decision-making stage of the college process, many schools offer fly-in programs that allow prospective and admitted students to visit campus. Places in the program are typically offered to low-income or minority students who otherwise would not be able to visit the college. Check your prospective institution’s website or ask an admissions representative for information about a fly-in program, but know that sometimes participation is by invitation only.
Once enrolled, programs that offer not only scholarships, but also social and academic support have been shown to improve graduation rates of participants. One such program is the Carolina Covenant at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which allows selected low-income students to graduate debt-free by offering a combination of grants, scholarships, and work-study, as well as providing personal and academic support. Participants in the Carolina Covenant program are 8% more likely to graduate in four years than their peers who were not eligible for the program. Ask admissions representatives at your prospective schools if they have similar programs in place.
Once you’re on campus you can also take advantage of the many resources that are open to all students. From getting extra help at the math or writing center, signing up for tutoring (often it’s free!), and taking advantage of the career center, there are safeguards in place to help you succeed both academically and professionally. Your academic advisor, professors, and dean, too, are all valuable resources.
Page last updated: 07/2018