In the next few weeks, colleges and universities across the country will welcome a new class of incoming freshmen. It's during this phase of life that many wide-eyed 18-year-olds will discover who they are and who they want to be. Because of the opportunity they've been given to get a higher education, they'll probably go on to make more money, have a job and family stability, and become more engaged in their communities. But sadly, secondary education is practically a luxury item nowadays -- not everyone can afford it.
According to a report released earlier this year from the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), college continues to remain out of reach for many low-income, working-class and middle-class Americans. Researchers found that while students from families in the highest income brackets could afford to go to 90 percent of colleges in their sample, low- and middle-income students could only afford one to five percent of colleges.
And if, as the saying goes, education is supposed to be the great equalizer for all people, that's a problem.
"While college-going has gone up for all students over the last several decades, low-income students today still go to college at rates equivalent to what high-income students did 40 years ago," Mamie Voight, IHEP's vice president of policy research, told VICE Impact. "There's a lot of room left to improve in terms of making college affordable, making it truly accessible and helping all students, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, achieve a higher education and pursue their dreams."
A person born into a high-income family is six times as likely to attain a bachelor's degree by young adulthood than a person born into a low-income family.
The IHEP report, titled Limited Means, Limited Options, goes on to paint a pretty bleak picture.
"Indeed, the cost of college—even after accounting for grant aid—is most burdensome for low-income students," the report states. "On average, they need to finance an amount equivalent to more than 100 percent of their family's annual income to attend one year at a four-year college, compared with high- income students, who must finance only 15 percent on average."
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Even community colleges have gotten to be too expensive, according to the report, which notes that "two-year and four-year public colleges that failed to meet the students' affordability thresholds missed the mark by averages of around $7,000 and $9,000, respectively."
Voight says that a person born into a high-income family is six times as likely to attain a bachelor's degree by young adulthood than a person born into a low-income family. One of the primary factors impacting these gaps is affordability.
"When students are facing immense cost barriers, and a very limited set of options in terms of which colleges they can afford to attend," she says, "we think that many of them are not going to college, going to those not the best fit for them, or not succeeding once they get to college because they're working so many hours to earn additional money to pay tuition and other college costs."
Because the price tag for a college education just keeps climbing, folks are, rightfully so, getting angsty. That's where the movement for free college, such as the program that just passed in New York, comes from. But Voight points out that those programs, known as "last-dollar" plans, are flawed.
"When students are facing immense cost barriers, and a very limited set of options in terms of which colleges they can afford to attend, we think that many of them are not going to college."
"Many of these free college proposals are not directing more aid to existing low-income students who are trying to scrape by and come up with the funds to pay their college costs," she says, and instead funneling funds to students who don't need it because they can better afford to pay for school."
What would be more productive, she explained, would be to improve and increase the amount of funding students can get from the Pell Grant, a program that's designed with low-income families in mind, with the vast majority of Pell recipients earning less than $40,000 a year.
In recent months, the federal government has proposed taking away anywhere from $1.3 billion to $3 billion from the Pell Grant program. In July, a group of 40 advocacy organizations and lobbying groups sent an open letter to ranking House members to ask them to oppose a bill that would rescind a $3.3 billion surplus in Pell Grants.
"This year, Pell Grants will help over 7.5 million students — including one-third of all White students, two-thirds of all Black students, and half of all Latino students — continue their education after high school," they write. "The current maximum Pell Grant covers less than one-third of the cost of attending a four-year public college – the lowest share in more than 40 years."
Voight says while it may seem intuitive to direct funds to the students who need it the most, "we're actually seeing shifts in the opposite direction."
That's why, she says, it's so important for people to not only be engaged in the political process and become aware of policies that impact affordability, but for students to also "voice their opinions" to school administrators.
"This is something that really hits people in personal ways," she continues. "We would like to see [education] operate in a way that it eliminates divisions that are based on race, socioeconomic status and income, and really allows all people the opportunity, if they work hard and apply themselves, to achieve a higher education and move their way into the middle class, achieve their dreams and contribute to our country in all the ways that they desire."
Help pave the way to making higher education accessible to people of all backgrounds by writing lawmakers and asking them to reject proposed cuts and instead increase federal funding.