Low-income college students are increasingly left behind

College costs will take center stage this year as Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act. The law, first passed in 1965, was supposed to help make college affordable to students from all economic backgrounds. But a new book of essays, America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, argues that it hasn’t done enough. USA TODAY’s Greg Toppo talked with the editor, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

Q: How bad is the problem of college affordability for low-income students?

A: Nearly 40 years after Congress passed the Higher Education Act, low-income students are still much less likely to attend college than their wealthy or middle-class peers. Two-thirds of the nation’s wealthiest 25% of students enroll in a four-year college within two years of graduating from high school, but just one in five from the bottom 25% do so. And low-income students are virtually shut out of the nation’s most selective colleges: Among the top 146 colleges, 74% of students come from the richest economic quartile and just 3% from the poorest. In other words, you’re 25 times as likely to run into a rich kid as a poor kid on America’s elite campuses.

Q: What about graduation rates?

A: High-income students are more than six times as likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree within five years than low-income students.

Q: Is this a problem of inadequate financial aid?

A: In large part. Financial aid funding hasn’t kept up with rising costs. In the mid-1970s, for example, the maximum Pell Grant for low-income and working-class families covered nearly 40% of the average cost of attending a four-year private college; now it covers about 15%.

Q: Where is federal help going?

A: Increasingly, the federal government has shifted resources away from grants for the poor to loans for the middle class. It has also shifted to higher education tax breaks, which mostly benefit the upper-middle class. In fact, federal education tax breaks now cost as much as the entire Pell Grant program. One result: Today, low-achieving rich kids are just as likely to attend college as high-achieving poor kids.

Q: If we solved the financial aid problem, would low-income students have equal access?

A: No. The other major barrier is academic preparation. Many low-income students get a lousy K-12 education.

Q: What is the federal government doing to help?

A: Historically, the federal government has sought to help low-income students through compensatory spending in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), but the main responsibility for K-12 education remains with state and local governments. The newest version of ESEA, No Child Left Behind, which President Bush signed in 2002, seeks to improve the education of all students by raising standards and improving teacher quality, but we won’t know for some time how much difference it will make.

Q: What can be done to improve financial aid?

A: The education experts in our book make a number of recommendations. Funding for the Pell Grant should be restored to achieve the purchasing power it provided in the 1970s. The Gearup and Trio programs, which provide remedial academics for low-income students, should be doubled in size — currently they reach only 10% of eligible students. Elite colleges should provide affirmative action for poor and working-class students of all races. Research shows that we could move the representation of the bottom economic half from its current 10% to almost 40%.

Q: Won’t these programs cost a lot of money?

A: The increase in Pell Grant funding would cost about $12 billion; doubling Trio and Gearup would cost $1 billion. That’s far less than the cost of just the dividends and capital gains component of the recent tax cut. Smart, hardworking kids from low-income backgrounds deserve a chance to go as far as their talents will take them. These students represent a huge untapped resource for the country. We can’t afford not to give them genuine opportunity.

Freeloaders, that’s what they are. Oughta be ashamed of themselves… By the way, did you know the Higher Ed Act was up for renewal? Hear anything about it on tv? Think Tom DeLay’s gonna push it through, do yah?

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