Higher Education

OPINION: I can’t understand financial aid letters, and I have an advanced degree. So how can poor students manage?

Helping the college applicants who need it the most

Andrew Moe on the campus of Swarthmore College on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, in Swarthmore, Pa.

Where does a high school senior whose parents didn’t go to college turn to understand the application process?

What resources are available to a student from a remote rural area if she wants to apply to college?

These questions and hundreds more like them are the ones I think about every day. While the number of affluent students graduating from college has grown over the years, the figure has been disturbingly stagnant for low-income students, despite billions of dollars and thousands of national and local programs.

Related: The newest advantage of being rich in America? Higher grades

For instance, while there’s been a 38 percentage-point increase in the number of college graduates for high-income students since 1970, there’s been a 3 percentage-point increase for low-income students in that same timeframe.

Nine percent of young adults from the bottom quartile of family incomes obtain a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24.

According to a recent study, 51 percent of Pell grant recipients enrolled in four-year nonprofit institutions nationwide graduate from college.

Related: Top universities could take thousands more low-income students, study says

The rate is higher at Swarthmore. However, the solutions need to be bigger than one institution.

In recent years, college access summits have been used around the country to reach out to underserved students and communities.

Related: New study reveals cities where low-income students are doing best

In June, Swarthmore gathered high school guidance counselors, community-based organizers and college admissions officers to also host a summit. We worked side-by-side to support these groups in a team effort to improve higher-education access.

At the summit hosted by Swarthmore, the college asked participants to collaborate and develop presentations on areas of the greatest interest to them, and the students they hope to support and recruit.

Related: DEBT WITHOUT DEGREE: Gaps in financial aid, funding contribute to growing number of Georgians with college loans and no college degree

Sessions included topics such as the “good, the bad and the ugly” in financial aid award letters.

The central discussion point in this session was how difficult these letters are for students to interpret and therefore, act on.

I have a doctorate in higher education and have worked in this field for a better part of a decade, and they even stump me.

Related: Five things American colleges need to do to help black and Latino students

Other sessions covered topics like the unique challenges that first-generation college students face, to helping prepare students for transferring to four-year institutions, to the power of the college essay.

“When we can harness our collective knowledge and best practices and have a space to share, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said co-presenter Kaitlin Irvin, a college access and success manager for Summer Search Philadelphia.

“We can therefore work smarter, not harder, which means we can more effectively serve our students,” Irvin added.

Related: What some colleges are quietly doing to help undocumented students

There’s a very long way to go, but gatherings like these will only serve to bring deserving students to colleges across the country.

With today’s climate, the chance for bright and determined students to get a college education only gets harder.

Let’s all do our part to make sure the next generation graduates and thrives.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Letters

Andrew Moe

Andrew Moe, Ed.D., is associate dean of admissions and director of access at Swarthmore College. See Archive

Letters to the Editor

Send us your thoughts

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.





I have helped four children figure out what their cost of attendance at college would be. It really is not very difficult, though each college has a different way to set up their financial aid award letter. The secret is to do some calculations, basic arithmetic, and put all the figures on a single sheet of paper so the student can compare.

To begin, turn on the lights and sit down at a table with paper, some sharp pencils, an eraser and a sense of humor.

First things first. And students can do this while they wait to be accepted. What is the list price for tuition, mandatory fees, room and board at each school? It's on every college website. Make sure the student calculates the cost for first year student dorms which may be more or less than other dorms. If there are meal plan choices, calculate a reasonable amount for the student. (For instance, my daughters chose chose a low cost meal plan because they knew their preference would be to eat a bowl of cereal or granola bar in their room for breakfast.) Five to ten minutes of research per college should do it - colleges all list their tuition and fees on line. Total that up and you have the cost of attendance amount.

If transportation will be an issue and the schools are located in different areas of the country, calculate transportation. For example, if you live in the midwest and some colleges are essentially local, list a tank or two of gas as transportation cost. Google air fare to colleges at a distance, say in NYC and California.

When the letters and financial aid come in, add up the scholarships and grants. We called it "free money" because it was a gift with no paying it back. Next, add up the loans. Add those two figures together and subtract from the college cost of attendance amount you figured earlier. What remains is the dreaded "gap" or the amount the student will have to "find" on their own.

If there are several schools with no "gap" amount, that is where the student is going to want to focus. Forget about the schools with a "gap" unless it is to ask them to reevaluate. (My daughters' experience with reevaluations was not positive.) Rank the loan amounts in the financial aid packet next. If one school offers 10 thousand a year in loans to make up a "no gap" financial aid packet and another offers only 2 thousand or less in loans, the choice is clear.

The important thing is to coach one's child not to get their heart set on attending a particular school until the financial letters are interpreted. Unless, of course, money is of no consequence to the student or family.

For our family, money was an operative feature of the decision making process. Calculating their cost of attendance was a basic life skill they needed to learn. Reading a financial aid letter and ferreting out the necessary information to determine what their cost of attendance would be was imperative. I did NOT do it for them. But, I supported them as they made their calculations and made their decisions.

In sum, financial aid letters are NOT hard to interpret. All it takes is some basic calculations.

- from Cathleen Dornon, Aug 22, 2017

Interesting nothing was even hinted about the gender gap. There is a significant difference between females getting financial aid and graduation rates. Why nothing about the huge drop in male graduation rates?

- from Ralph Stevens, Aug 23, 2017