Education for the few

Low income students, even if they are high achievers, do not get the tools of an affordable education to build a life of prosperity, not only for themselves, but for the country as a whole. Income inequality, yet again, reinforces missed opportunities.

Economists, policy makers and Americans agree that education brings forward opportunity. If a child does well in school, they have a higher likelihood to build a career, become self-sufficient and break free from poverty. Unfortunately, this belief neither reflects the education policy nor the reality of impoverished children in the United States.

This inequality of opportunity starts early in life with limited access to quality primary education.  The location of where one lives is a contributing factor to the value of education a child may receive. In the United States, geography is incredibly racially and income segregated. In a recent NY Times post by Thomas Edsall, the article highlighted government, think tank and academic research revealing that geography impacts the quality of education of children. In one study, a randomized control trial using a rigorous methodology, when families who simply move to more well-off white communities their children tend to perform and test much better, especially in mathematics, compared to their peers who remained in poverty stricken areas. Better-off communities have higher quality schools  partly because they receive more funding, have involved Parent Teacher Associations and offer a variety of after-school programs and provide transportation home (crucial for single parent households or working families). Location matters, especially in the United States, because of economically and racially segregated neighborhoods prohibiting children to receive an equal opportunity to quality primary education.

Besides the importance of location, poor students who manage to do well in school face another obstacle: the college admission process and how to pay for outrageously expensive tuition and board. College preparation examination is a critical aspect to increase one’s chances for college admittance, but also important for the most selective universities. Low income students face a disadvantage since college preparation courses are not offered in public high schools and tutoring or classroom preparation can be as much as $700, a prohibitively expensive course. Additionally, many low income parents do not know the importance of these exams for college admittance.  Public schools are not required to provide resources or information about test prep materials which do not enable children with the tools they need to succeed in college admission exams.

Even if an individual is able to do well on pre-university examination without the extra help, a low-income student will still have many hoops to jump through.  A Brookings study revealed that low income students who achieve high SAT scores do not apply to selective universities, especially compared to their high-income peers. Furthermore, the current practices of college recruitment, such as campus visits or college mentoring programs consistently miss high-achieving low-income candidates.  A high income student is 75 times more likely to apply to a selective school than a similarly qualified low income student.  Students from poor families are much more likely to apply to local, cheaper and in-state schools than their high income counterparts. This provides evidence that tuition and in particular, room & board, are a major factor in the decision process for college applications. High achieving low income students choose to apply to schools that are cheaper and closer to home.

Students know that scholarships are unlikely. Another report by New America Education Policy, revealed that the average cost for a achieving low income students is rising; less universities are offering these type of students a Bachelor’s degree for a price tag that is less than $10,000.  Private non-profit elite universities choose to allure individuals they feel are the best and brightest who come from wealthy families, rather than providing low income students who need funding the most. There are only six need-blind policy universities in the entire country. This means that only six universities will not consider the income of a student when making admission decisions. Despite the ironic term, “merit aid” policies, what this policy actually means is that the admission process will consider income as a factor, often making wealthier students a more attractive option for the university’s coffers.  High achieving poor students do not even attempt to apply to selective universities, even if they could get admitted, with the understanding that an elite school will be out of their price range.

Figuring out how to pay for a selective university is frightening when one faces a potential bill of up to $100,000 for four years of education. While scholarships may reduce the total cost, students still face a student loan bill, which is on average, $29,400. A recent NY Times article by David Leonhart suggests that it’s partly because of complicated FAFSA forms, a bureaucratic form students must complete in order to receive government assistance such as Pell grants or low interest loans. Many low-income students are not aware of FAFSA, but also the forms require financial literacy, which many families may not understand. While the Obama administration has attempted to address these issues and provide some solutions, policy implementation has not been addressed on how to make the process easier or how to provide imperative information on university financing options.

Despite the American belief that individual will and hard work can surpass any obstacle, the unfortunate reality is that for most low income students, they do not get an equal opportunity to succeed. They do not get the tools of an affordable education to build a life of prosperity, not only for themselves, but for the country as a whole. Income inequality, yet again, reinforces missed opportunities.


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