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Report Shows Low-Income Students Pay High Share of College

A new report released today by the Education Trust says that financial-aid policies too often benefit affluent students who would go to college anyway, rather than helping those with the greatest financial need. And when it comes to the bottom line of paying for college (after grants and aid), low-income students pay a higher proportion of their family income to attend than other students.

"Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial-Aid Policies Hurt Low-Income Students" examines the "net price" of college (total cost of attendance minus total grant aid from all sources) using U.S. Department of Education data from 1,200 colleges and universities across country.

Just five of the 1,200 institutions met the Education Trust's criteria as being affordable choices for low-income students, demonstrating success in three areas:
-They enroll a proportion of low-income students that is at least as high as the national average.
-They ask these students to pay a portion of their family income no greater than what the average middle-income student pays for a bachelor's degree.
-They offer all students at least a 1-in-2 chance at graduation.

Those five institutions include California State University: Fullerton and Long Beach, City University of New York: Bernard B. Baruch and Queens, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The report says that favorable state and system policies play a major role in helping these public institutions keep costs more manageable for low-income students. These schools have tuition and fees that are below the national average, and New York, California, and North Carolina provide more need-based financial aid per student than most other states.

When it comes to shelling out their own money for college—after exhausting all sources of grant aid—the typical low-income student must come up with more than $11,000 a year to attend a four-year public or private nonprofit college, the report found. That is equivalent to nearly 72 percent of their family income. In contrast, middle-class students must finance the equivalent of 27 percent of their family income, and high-income students must pay just 14 percent.

"Students, institutions of higher learning, and ultimately, the country all suffer from the regressive nature of financial-aid policies and their negative, aggregate effect," the report says. The Education Trust reports encourages policymakers to consider supporting programs that affect the neediest students.

The report calls attention to the debate over funding cuts to the federal Pell Grant, designed to help low-income students while tuition tax credits that benefit middle- and upper-income families have largely avoided scrutiny.

"In a nation founded on principles of fairness, we certainly must do better to provide our neediest students with the opportunities they require for upward economic mobility," according to the report. "The bias toward privilege encoded in today's financial-aid policies not only betrays our democratic principles, it also weakens our ability to reach our college aspirations."

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