The education divide

Due to financial barriers to an education, low-income students are unable to advance economically.

Connor Nikolic

Low-income students are already at a disadvantage when trying to obtain a college degree. With the middle class collapsing into the lower class, more and more students have to beat the odds for an education.

Between 2011 and 2012, the 1.2 million households with incomes that put them in the top 1 percent of the U.S. saw their earnings increase by 5.5 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Earnings fell by 1.7 percent for the 96 million households in the bottom 80 percent — those that made less than $101,583.

This startling shift is just as prevalent in our state. Between 1995 and 2010, the average income for a Minnesotan in the exact middle pay range went up by $4,300, or about 13 percent. In that same time, the highest earner’s average income went up by $49,924, or 24 percent.

This discrepancy in earnings makes it more difficult than ever for high school students from middle-class families to afford tuition at institutions like the University of Minnesota.

The current tuition for full-time, in-state students at the University is $6,030. Out-of-state students pay $9,155. Including room and board, books, fees, meal plans and additional living costs, that number continues to swell.

About 32 percent of students who received aid last year came from families with a net income below $48,000. These students may be forced to take out loans or try to pay their way through college without family support. High price tags discourage families from sending their high school students off to an expensive education. Without a college degree, these students may be limited in job opportunities later in life.

A high school diploma means less in today’s job market than at any point in history. The median weekly income in 2012 for an adult with nothing beyond a high school diploma was $652, among adults in full-time or salaried positions. The average adult with a bachelor’s degree made $1,066 a week. On top of that, the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree is more than 3 percent lower than that of Americans with no college

The University has done great work with programs like the Student Parent HELP Center, which works to guide students who are raising children while pursuing a degree. Since this group tends to be among the lowest earners at the University, the center focuses on financial guidance and affordable child care on campus. Additional programs and student groups like TRiO and the University of Minnesota Promise Scholarship also work to help low-income students.

That being said, we do not have a “no loan” program in place like Ivy League schools or top public universities like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

“No loan” programs are designed to allow students from low-income families to attend college at little or no cost. From 2005-2009, the University of Minnesota had a “no loan” program that would offer Pell Grants to cover 100 percent of a low-income, in-state student’s fees and tuition.

It was replaced by the Minnesota Promise Scholarship, which awards $570 to $4,000 per year to qualifying students coming from households with a net income below $100,000.

If young people from low-income families can’t find the means to pay for an education, they may be at a disadvantage in the eyes of employers for the rest of their lives.