Are colleges doing enough to support low-income students?

The US Department of Education has released a report describing the continuing progress of America's universities and colleges at educating lower-income students.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
Students jog on the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) campus, Mar. 4. The US Department of Education has released a report describing the continuing progress of America's universities and colleges at educating lower-income students.

Breaking the cycle of poverty can start with admission to college, but it doesn't end with just getting in.

A report by the US Department of Education describes practical strategies for the federal government, states, and the institutions themselves to help with recruiting – and graduating – students from low-income backgrounds.

“For years, colleges and universities have adopted an approach that was around admitting the best students they could and the onus was on the student to make it,” said Andrew Nichols, a researcher at The Education Trust whose data was used in the report. “Now we look at it differently.... Certainly they need to do their part, but there are things colleges and universities can do.”

The report described several successes from the Obama administration, including a $12 billion Pell Grant increase, expanded tax credits to help families pay tuition, allowing families to use the previous year's tax information on the FAFSA, and student loan reform.

Some of these changes are largely symbolic, writes Jon Marcus for the Hechinger Report, and they will succeed only if they change the priorities of America's colleges and universities.

In response to criticism that pressure over college rankings leads institutions away from recruiting and admitting potentially risky students, the administration has created a new rating system.

The new system explicitly addresses one specific problem identified by the administration: the gap in recruitment and graduation rates between students who receive Pell Grants, the federal aid for low-income students, and students who do not. The Hechinger Report was skeptical of the department's data but noted the shift the administration is trying to create.

"Schools are being scored for the first time based on the number of recipients of Pell Grants they enroll – grants that go to children of families earning around $40,000 or less, and used as a measure of low income – and the proportion who actually get degrees," Mr. Marcus writes. "The Obama administration hopes the public exposure will encourage colleges and universities to admit more such students, and help them finish."

Education officials offered strategies beyond direct financial aid, including tuition freezes.

Several states are taking their own steps to help poor students attend college. Kentucky has seen the strongest results, successfully slashing the gaps in graduation rates between low-income and other students.

The recession is still impacting most state budgets, however, and only two states have restored educational funding to pre-2008 levels: Tennessee and Virginia.

Tennessee has created a program to provide free community college combined with mentoring and community service. In Virginia, the governor's plan to provide $50 million of incentives for schools to recruit minority students is under review by the legislature.

"It is in America’s interest to advance both access to higher education for low-income students, and success once they enroll," says the report. "To thrive in today’s global economy, the United States must harness the potential of every person."

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