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The College-Opportunity Battle Isn't Over

Since the launch of President Lyndon Johnson's landmark War on Poverty, it is undeniable that the country has made substantial progress in educational equity and attainment.  Efforts to break the cycle of poverty for disadvantaged children under Project Head Start, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the Higher Education Act of 1965 resulted in successful reforms and resources at all levels of education.  


Cheryl L. Smith

Despite these gains, the country is not producing the college graduates needed to remain competitive in the global economy, and significant racial and income disparities persist. Today, a young person from a low-income family has only a 10 percent chance of entering and completing college, while 80 percent of high-income students enter and complete college. The drive over the last 10 years for higher academic standards in preK-12 education and reforms in how public education is organized and taught will result in growing numbers of low-income and minority students who will be leaving high school better prepared for the academic rigors of college. But how will they pay for their college educations?

President Johnson declared that no student should want for a college education for lack of financial resources. Yet the purchasing power of the federal Pell Grant—the signature higher education initiative of the War on Poverty—has dropped to its lowest level since the program's inception in 1972, paying for less than a third of the cost of a four-year college degree. From a high of 86 percent in 1986, the share of federal financial aid allocated based on financial need has shrunk to only 44 percent. 

What can policymakers do to help more low-income and students of color get to and through college?

  • Support better college advising and streamline the federal financial aid system. Policymakers must support earlier, better, and more personalized college advising for low-income students and students of color in middle and high school. The current discussions about a federal college rating system won't fully address the needs of these students who are most concerned about how to pay for college. Moreover, the complexity of the federal student financial aid form (FAFSA) and programs are daunting for low-income families and create a barrier to boosting college enrollment of the neediest students.
  • Make a greater investment in need-based student financial aid.  Federal and state policymakers must reverse regressive student financial aid policies that have shifted the burden of paying for college onto students and families.  A greater investment in Pell Grants and other need-based student scholarships that are proven to increase degree completion is essential.
  • Invest in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).  HBCUs are affordable, but overlooked, colleges with a record of success in enrolling and graduating educationally and economically disadvantaged African-American students at higher rates than predicted.  Policymakers should provide additional resources so that HBCUs can expand their capacity to serve this population of students whose path to college is disproportionately obstructed by financial need.

A college education has never been more valuable nor the stakes higher.  As the War on Poverty passes its half-century mark, the battle for college opportunity for all must still be won.   

Cheryl L. Smith joined UNCF in May 2013 as senior vice president of public policy and government affairs. She has extensive education policy and advocacy experience in the U.S. Congress, state government, private sector, and nonprofit organizations.

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