Report urges better access

Schools should provide money, aid preparation, study says

Amy Horst

Colleges and secondary schools must provide more financial access and academic opportunities to prospective students, according to a report published in Friday’s Chronicle of Higher Education.

The report by the Pathways to College Network outlined approximately 100 ways colleges can increase access to a college education at a time when tuition costs are rapidly rising around the country. The report focused on low-income students, underrepresented minorities and students whose parents did not attend college.

At the University, opinions vary as to whether access is increasing or decreasing, and data is equally inconsistent.

Although Minnesota and the University traditionally have had more low-income students attending college than in other states, those numbers have dropped in the last few years.

In fall 2001, incoming first-year students whose families earned less than $50,000 made up 7.4 percentage points less of the student population than they did in fall 1999.

In Minnesota, the percentage of low-income students attending college dropped 12 percentage points between 1999 and 2001.

Bruce Schelske, director of the University’s TRiO student support services program, said one obstacle low-income and first-generation students face is knowing how and when to apply, an issue the report said colleges must address.

Because parents of students from underrepresented groups have often never been to college and are less equipped to help students figure out the procedures, it is common for those students to turn in applications for admission and financial aid late, Schelske said.

M.E.G. Paez, an Office of Admissions and Financial Aid administrator, said many students who need help are turned down because loans have been distributed by the time their applications are received.

Paez said all students and prospective students should fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form as early as possible.

“Everybody can get at least some type of loan through that,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of students ignoring that and going with a private lender, but it’s not as good a deal as getting (a federal) loan – they’ll pay more in fees, and they’ll pay more in interest with a private lender.”

The University has been vigilant about helping low-income students attend, said Craig Swan, vice provost for Undergraduate Education.

Between fall 2000 and fall 2004, the number of University undergraduate students eligible for Pell grants increased from 19.6 percent to 21.2 percent, Swan said. The University has also more than doubled its financial aid dollars for low-income students since 2000, Swan said.

“That’s certainly suggesting that we are holding our own with regard to the lowest income students, especially when the withdrawal of state support has forced such large tuition increases,” Swan said.

Pell grants are federal grants given to the neediest students and are used by researchers to measure numbers of low-income students.

Schelske said all students should be concerned with the issue of access to higher education.

“It has to do with fairness and justice,” Schelske said. “Somebody’s educational horizon should not be limited by who their parents are.”