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11 Steps Colleges Should Take to Help Low-Income Students

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financial-aid-low-income-students-Cooke-report.PNGColleges and universities have a duty to help low-income students surmount the many barriers they face in the application process, and 11 key practices could help them do that, according to a research brief released Thursday.

"Low-income students face numerous barriers when it comes to the pursuit of higher education," says the report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which focuses on policies that support high-achieving low-income students.

"Many school practices exacerbate rather than alleviate these barriers. Schools have a responsibility to students and must recognize that not all students have access to the same resources."

The report aggregates the findings of previous research into the obstacles that frequently keep low-income students from getting into college, or succeeding once they're on campus. Low-income students are only one-eighth as likely as wealthier peers to go to college and graduate, according to a 2015 study cited in the report.

What kinds of things get in their way? Thinking they can't afford college, and not understanding how federal loans or grants can help. Not knowing that financial support from the college they attend can play a huge role in making college affordable. Not knowing how to apply for institutional aid.

With those dynamics in mind, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (which helps support Education Week's coverage of high-achieving low-income students) lays out 11 things colleges and universities can do to reduce barriers to higher education. 

Clarifying financial information:

  • Clarify financial-aid letters by explaining the difference between scholarships, which require repayment, and grants and scholarships, which don't. Drafting those letters with a U.S. Department of Education template as a guide would help eliminate confusing acronyms and make it easier for students to compare colleges' offers. Including the net cost of attendance—what a student pays after subtracting aid—could reduce sticker-shock reactions, too, the report said.
  • Give students a four-year estimate of costs. Many letters tell students that tuition could rise, but that can be daunting without a projection of what that could look like over four years.
  • Establish clear policies about eligibility for financial aid, and make sure they're included in all communications to students. If poor grades could cost students their aid, make that clear in the financial-aid letter. Periodic reminders about deadlines and eligibility once students are on campus would be helpful, too. 
  • Find better ways to estimate nontuition costs, so students have a more accurate idea of the total costs they're facing. Colleges must provide estimates for the cost of off-campus living, but those estimate vary wildly. 
  • Educate students about financial aid. Colleges could require, or encourage, students to meet with a financial advisor before accepting their financial-aid offers, or they could post webinars or videos to help students analyze their offers and make informed choices.

Easing the financial burden:

  • Prioritize need-based institutional grants. Over the last two decades, the landscape of institutional aid has tilted from need-based aid to merit-based aid, a strategy that tends to benefit wealthier, higher-achieving students, the report said.
  • Commit to maintaining grant levels for a student's entire academic program. Many students assume grants will stay at their awarded levels for four years, but many institutions reduce the level of grants between a student's freshman and senior years.
  • Don't reduce aid when students receive private scholarships. Allow those scholarships to supplement, not supplant, institutional aid, since many students are applying for those scholarships to reduce the overall cost of college.
  • Use low-cost textbooks. The cost of textbooks has risen 73 percent in the past decade, the report said. Many college faculty members are unhappy about the expense for students, but are often unaware of lower-cost alternatives, such as online or open-source texts.

Filling in financial-aid gaps:

  • Set up emergency aid programs. Food pantries and short-term loans can help students through rough patches.
  • Integrate financial aid with social services. Some community colleges are linking students to public benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or applying for the earned income tax credit, by setting up offices where students can be screened for eligibility for those services. A RAND Corp. evaluation of one of those systems, Single Stop USA, found it helped students stay in college.

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Art: Getty Images

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