Too few low-income college students?
Pressure mounts on colleges to reduce barriers for that pool of talent.
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About 12 percent of students at Amherst received Pell Grants in 2006, and about 20 percent overall are low-income, if the count includes those who are similarly eligible for grants through other channels, Mr. Parker says.Skip to next paragraph
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Amherst makes sure the financial-aid packages it offers cover students' need through government and Amherst grants and campus jobs. The college used to include loans in its aid packages, but nearly a decade ago, it stopped asking students to take out loans if their families earned under $60,000; it gave them more grants instead. Last year, it expanded the no-loan policy to everyone on financial aid, meaning many middle-class students can also graduate debt-free.
Dozens of colleges made similar announcements in the past year. In part, these moves are seen as a response to pressures from some members of Congress who want wealthy colleges to use more of their endowment funds to improve affordability. Congress recently expanded maximum Pell Grant amounts.
For Amherst and other colleges that value diversity as an important contributor to all students' education, socioeconomic diversity is gaining more attention. As restrictions have cropped up on traditional affirmative-action categories such as race, attention to low-income students is sometimes seen as a way to help keep up representation of minorities.
But at private schools like Amherst, that's not the motivation, Parker says. Indeed, the Pell Grant recipients there are about equally African-American, white, Hispanic, and Asian-American.
Some parents wonder if their child might be paying more to subsidize low-income students, Parker says, but that's not the case, because funding for financial aid primarily comes from colleges' endowments. Many donors, in fact, dedicate their endowment gifts to financial aid. Even students who pay the full price of tuition, fees, and room and board – about $47,000 – aren't paying the full amount it costs for the college to house and educate each student, which adds up to nearly $80,000.
But financial aid alone isn't enough to boost low-income enrollments, many colleges have found. Amherst has hired more admissions staff to do outreach, and it pays for several hundred low-income students a year to visit campus. It also works with nonprofit groups such as QuestBridge, which identifies talented applicants from low-income backgrounds.
Current Amherst students from low-income backgrounds can earn their work-study money by mentoring high school counterparts through the college-application and financial-aid process, whether or not they want to apply to Amherst.
Ashley Armato worked as a mentor as a student at Amherst, where she recently graduated and started a one-year job in the admissions office. As the daughter of a firefighter and a maid, neither of whom went to college, she understood the challenges facing those she mentored. Students often started off assuming they could afford only community colleges, but she was able to explain financial aid and help them expand their options. She also reassured a lot of parents, sometimes speaking with them in Spanish.
Some four-year colleges and universities are aiming even younger in the pipeline to help ensure students have enough preparation to be strong applicants.
Rutgers University, the flagship public institution in New Jersey, recently created the Future Scholars Program, in which up to 200 local eighth-graders will participate in enrichment activities all the way through high school. The students meet income requirements and will be the first generation in their family to attend college, and they are promised full scholarships for tuition and fees if they are accepted into Rutgers. The university has launched a fundraising campaign and expects the costs to be covered through private donations and existing state and federal programs.
"I thought a lot about college – every day, every day," says Feliciano Cintron of Camden, N.J., who was selected for the program this summer. "As soon as this opportunity came … I just took it and said, 'I can't let go of this.' "