Fewer low-income students go to college

Enrollment right after high school has decreased for those students.

Benjamin Farniok

When Nora Haltom started thinking about where she wanted to go to school, she knew she wouldn’t be able to afford tuition without getting help.
 
Because of financial aid, the freshman was able to begin studying mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota.
 
But fewer students from low-income families are heading straight into higher education after high school, according to an analysis from the American Council on Education released last month.
 
Middle- and high-income students heading to college decreased as well, but families whose incomes are in the bottom 20 percent saw a sharper drop.
 
The number of high school graduates from low-income families going directly into college from high school has decreased from 56 percent down to about 46 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to the analysis. 
 
A range of issues, including the growing cost of college, could have led to the decrease in low-income students, said Christopher Nellum, co-author of the analysis and senior
policy research analyst at ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy.
 
When job markets improve after recessions, people tend to value higher education less, Nellum said, especially with increasing tuition costs.
 
“Despite everything that has been done, maybe students think college is just too expensive and maybe it’s just all about perceptions, despite what we know the reality to be,” he said.
 
This school year, the estimated cost for an in-state resident undergraduate living away from home to attend the University of Minnesota is more than $25,784, up about $400
from the previous school year.
 
Haltom said some of her friends were unable to attend universities or colleges, because they weren’t aware of financial aid options.
 
Psychology senior Elizabeth Centeio said she had friends in her hometown of Boston who never thought they’d be able to go to college. But she said if they had been told about the scholarships or grants they may have been eligible for, they could have gone to school.
 
“They would have made it, even given their low-income status,” she said.
 
Maureen Hoyler, the president of the Council for Opportunity in Education said the council collected similar numbers to the data ACE collected.
 
Hoyler said many people who started college after 2008 would have gotten jobs out of high school if the recession hadn’t slowed the job market.
 
Public colleges have also experienced a decrease in state funding, which Hoyler said has hurt low-income students.
 
“That puts pressure on institutions to seek people who can pay,” she said. 
 
The analysis also found that high school graduation rates have increased by 6 percent between 2008 and 2012.
 
Nellum said helping high schools spread the word about financial aid opportunities could result in more low-income students attending college.
 
But decreases in funding at a high school level have also impacted enrollment, Hoyler said, adding that many students aren’t able to get the counseling that would make them aware of the financial aid opportunities that are before them.
 
“We can do a lot better,” she said. “We just got to do it.”