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Low-Income Students Find Success at Small Private Colleges, Report Shows

First-generation and low-income students can find the nurturing environment they need to be successful at small private colleges, but too often overlook them as an option, according to a new report released on Wednesday.

"Expanding Access and Opportunity," a report by the Council of Independent Colleges calls on high school counselors to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to consider small private colleges, citing research that shows that the personalized attention leads to deeper engagement and higher, on-time graduation rates than for their peers from similar backgrounds at larger public universities.

Nearly 70 percent of first-generation students and 77 percent of low-income students graduated in four years at private, nonprofit doctorate-granting colleges, compared to 50 percent of first-generation and 35 percent of low-income students at public doctoral institutions, the CIC report reveals. Graduates from small to mid-sized private schools also reported higher levels of satisfaction with their educational experience compared to their peers at larger public institutions. 

At smaller schools, the report finds that students are more likely to meet regularly with their adviser, take essay exams, be taught by a faculty member, and be involved in extracurricular actiivites than those at public and private doctoral universities.

The CIC report notes that family and financial pressures often mean that underrepresented students opt for schools that are less expensive, prestigous or resourced, such as community colleges and four-year public institutions.

"Early in the college search process, first-generation and low-income students should be made aware of the affordability, accessibility, quality. and effectiveness of these institutions," writes report author P. Jesse Rine, the director of the research project with the CIC, an association based in Washington, that represents 750 private college and universities.

The CIC last year launched a public awareness campaign (Power of Liberal Arts) about the value, diversity, and affordability of their college aimed at prospective students, parents, and school counselors.

"There is a lack of knowledge about available resources," said Rine in a phone interview. "There is a myth about private college being gated communities for the elite...our sector is open to students of modest means."

Rather than focusing on the initial cost, students need to realize they can graduate earlier from smaller colleges, which saves money in the long run, says Rine. Once financial aid and grants are factored in, the cost of attending a small private college can be within a few thousand dollars of the cost of public school—and the report shows that graduates from smaller colleges leave with less overall debt, he adds

The report calls on lawmakers at the state level to recognize the success of private colleges in educating disadvantaged students and revisit policies that limit the amount of state aid that can be applied to private college tuition. It suggests that federal financial aid policy reward institutions that successfully graduate underrepresented students and that competitive grants be awarded to schools with innovative practices that support college completion among low-income and first-generation students.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows overall graduation rates are higher at nonprofit, private institutions with 66 percent graduating in six years compared to about 57 percent at public universities. Yet, it is considerably more expensive. The average cost of tuition and fees is $9,139 a year at an in-state public four-year college, compared to $31,231 at a private institution, the College Board's November trends report on college pricing show.

Still, many institutions discount tuition for low-income students and, along with financial aid, that makes attendance far more affordable than the sticker price would suggest. Two-thirds of full-time students pay for college with the assistance of grants and federal tax credits and deductions, according to "Trends in Student Aid from the College Board."

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