College Should Be For Everyone

More alarmingly, tuition has increased one thousand percent since 1978. According to some experts, no expenditure in the United States has escalated in cost the way university tuition has done. Rising cost of a college educationMeanwhile, wages have stagnated, making it even harder for some families to send young people to college. Funding for the Pell Grant has not kept pace with the across-the-board increase in tuition.

A recent Pell Institute study shows that first-generation college students and students from poor families are hit the hardest by these statistics. These students are almost four times more likely to quit their university programs than their more affluent peers from college-educated families. College-educated parents, it seems, have more money to send their children on to higher education. And they also support the decision to go to college and stick it out.

The end result of this rift is bound to be a growing disparity between the nation’s affluent and its poorer citizens.

Uninformed choices compound the problem. First-generation college students and students from impoverished neighborhoods often lack access to the best information about how to finance a college degree. Most college-educated families, for instance, understand the concept of in-state and out-of-state tuition and they know what FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is. Some very wealthy families have figured out how to shelter their assets to make their children eligible for scholarships and even need-based loans. Statistics coming out of Harvard University itself show that esteemed school is awarding financial aid to students from families making as much as $200,000 a year. A recent article in the Washington Monthly explains that many colleges give out aid to students from wealthy families because, otherwise, those students and the revenue they would bring to the school will go elsewhere. It is, in other words, a matter of being competitive with other schools that are handing out aid to families who don’t really need it.

Meanwhile, poor families sometimes needlessly empty out their savings accounts to finance an education for one young person when a combination of work study and low-interest loans might make a lot more sense.

Basic education about affording college needs to begin in high school. High school counselors need to understand that getting a senior into college is meaningless unless that senior can afford to stay in school and complete a degree. All students should be educated about basic financial aid instruments like the FAFSA, work study programs, the Pell Grant, state scholarships, and federally-backed and state-backed loans that carry relatively low interest rates and can even, under some circumstances, be forgiven.

Counselors need to do their homework and educated students about their college options. Nearby state schools often offer affordable in-state tuition, and at-risk students may be able to save considerable money by living at home with their parents while going to college. For students with good academic records and strong recommendations from teachers, a private school which has a particularly generous financial aid package may be the best option. Counselors need to sort out the schools that truly offer an opportunity to students with little or no money from schools that just have huge endowments but offer little aid to poor families. Counselors need to understand how the quest for a diversified student body at many universities can help some of their students afford the best education. Some schools, for instance, offer scholarships specifically designed to integrate and diversify the student population.

Colleges and universities, too, need to do their part to retain first-generation college students. Some education professionals report good success in retaining first-generation college students by making “difference education” a part of the standard college orientation process. This difference education talks directly and openly about first-generation college students, why they are important, and what their challenges are. It involves the testimony of juniors and seniors who have succeeded at the college sharing their stories as first-generation students.

One university found that first-generation students who took the difference education orientation were more likely to seek out mentors, and that mentoring made them more likely to stay in school.

A new website, CollegeAppz, promises to help first-generation college students navigate the often confusing process of financing their education.

The rising cost of a college education and the difficulty some families have in sending their children to college is destined to further widen the gap between rich and poor in the United States. Frustrated young people who are unable to fulfill their potential do not make for a strong economy which requires a well qualified, highly trained and optimistic work force.

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