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Table 1, Delivering Early Information about College Financial Aid, Urban Institute
Table 1, Delivering Early Information about College Financial Aid, Urban Institute

Amid news reports of soaring college costs, a new study details how college is surprisingly affordable for the lowest income Americans. Yet fewer than half of them enroll in college, and 12 percent of those who do enroll fail to apply for financial aid.

The July 16, 2015 Urban Institute report speculates that too many low-income Americans mistakenly assume that college is too expensive for them. The authors argue that if more low-income families were told about their likely financial aid packages, when their children are as young as 11 years old, then more families would push their children to take the demanding courses in high school that would prepare them for college.

“A coordinated federal effort to put well-designed, personalized information into the hands of these families when their children are young—rather than just telling them about the available websites they can visit—has the potential to move the needle,” wrote Sandy Baum and Sarah Minton, arguing that the government should target low-income families outside of school, when they are interacting with food and healthcare welfare agencies or filing their taxes.

For example, full-time students from the lowest family-income quartile (family incomes under $30,000) who were enrolled in public two-year or four-year colleges in their own state received enough grant aid, on average, to cover their tuition and fees during the 2011-12 school year, and have money left over to help cover books and living expenses, according to the report.  These students, on average, received more than $9,700 for a four-year public university in their state, leaving them with more than $2,200 for books and living expenses. Grant aid includes money from federal and state governments, colleges and universities, employers, other private sources and from estimated federal tax credits and deductions.

For families with slightly higher family income, up to $40,000, grant aid is usually still generous enough to cover tuition and fees at many public institutions. Over 90 percent of those families received an average of more than $11,000 in grant aid from federal, state and institutional sources in 2011–12, according to a 2013 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, cited by the Urban Institute report.

In another financial aid calculation cited in the report, grant aid covered the entire tuition at public four-year institutions for 44 percent of students from families with incomes below $50,000. Another 35 percent paid less than $2,000 in tuition after grant aid. At public two-year colleges, 66 percent of these low-income students had no net tuition, and another 32 percent paid less than $2,000.

Yet, more than half of the nation’s lowest-income students aren’t going to college. Only 46 percent of low-income students (from the bottom 20 percent of family incomes) who recently finished high school were enrolled in college in 2013, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Depressingly, that college-going number is in decline.  In every previous year from 2005 to 2012, a bit more than half of low-income high school graduates were enrolled in college. For recent high school graduates of middle and high income families, by contrast, almost 64 percent and 79 percent, respectively, were enrolled in college in 2013.

The report acknowledges that there are additional financial barriers to attending college for low-income students, and the authors don’t claim that information sessions on financial aid would close the college gap between the haves and the have-nots. Annual living expenses, which can run well above $15,000 in many parts of the country, are often more expensive than college tuition itself. And the foregone income from not working and attending school instead can be too much for low income students, who might also be helping to support their families.

But it does make sense that families need to be aware of  tuition-free college before junior or senior year of high school, when it’s already too late to prepare for college properly. It would be interesting to see if a pilot project to inform low-income parents of middle-schoolers about college financial aid, when they pick up their Medicare or food debit cards, would affect the courses that their kids take in high school. However, I tend to think teenagers are more influenced by their peers than their parents at this age. When they see their friends taking college-preparatory math and English classes, so will they.

This article also appeared here.

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