Financial Aid and Lower Income Students

There are many factors that determine whether or not a student attends college — the family's socio-economic status, the student's academic ability and achievement, and the family's perception of the value of a college education. Perhaps the most important, however, is the family's ability to pay for a college education. For low-income families who struggle simply to meet the basic necessities of life and are left with virtually no discretionary income, the prospect of financing college is a bleak one. Many of these families are members of minority groups, which make up a disproportionately large share of the low-income population and are proportionately overrepresented among low-income student aid recipients. Without access to financial aid these same students would be excluded from postsecondary education. Yet, is our financial aid system meeting the needs of low-income students and their families?

This paper will not attempt to discuss, except peripherally, such important variables as academic preparation and advising, parents' background (other than economic) or the perceived value of a college education. Nor will it try to demonstrate a causal relationship between financial aid and enrollment rates (this issue remains somewhat controversial, but more studies than not would show that there is indeed a connection). Also, only students who are dependent on their families for financial support, and are full-time college matriculants directly out of high school, will be examined.

This paper will begin with a brief overview of financial aid policies and practices of the past two decades, noting particular trends and their consequences for low-income students. The next section will discuss the lack of information on financial aid for low-income families and possible causes for that lack. When students and their families do receive information, it is often not useful because of timing, the mode of delivery, and the confusing nature of financial aid forms. Even after going through the usually onerous process of gathering information and filling out forms, low-income students may ultimately decide to not accept an aid package that appears to meet their need. Factors and hidden penalties which the current needs analysis system fails to recognize will be examined, as well as the difficulty many low-income students have in assuming an increasingly large burden of debt. Several solutions to the above problems will be offered, along with an analysis of the consequences of possible remedies. The paper will conclude with a brief discussion of several interesting, although previously unexamined, questions and issues, focusing on the long-term effects of this lack of adequate financial aid information and monies for the poor.

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