Low-income students need bold solutions to get to and through college

­­­My survey of low-income students suggests the limitations of the Promise model for increasing economic mobility. While for some students, the tuition-free community college is an important part of the access and affordability puzzle, it does not offer a panacea. Too often, university counselors in schools with high poverty rates among students store these students in Promise programs regardless of student goals, decreasing access to a bachelor’s degree increasingly essential for a real chance to earn higher and sustained income.

Promise programs work best when they encourage two-year enrollment among students who otherwise would not enroll in college. Community colleges offer commendable programs, but they are not a panacea or the best choice for all low-income students. While a free option for the first two years can create a ramp up to higher education, the simplicity of the free college message keeps students away from equally free and more selective options.

A Memphis student has reportedly received generous financial support for her premier college, Vanderbilt University. Despite her father’s disability and the foreclosure of her home, she graduated from her fifth grade in her high school class but never applied, assuming she couldn’t afford the tuition. Instead, she felt pushed into a free community college. By her sophomore year, her motivation to move on to four-year college and become a teen therapist had waned.

Students present colleges below their capacity become less likely to graduate. Differences in support provide a reason: community colleges receive about half four-year public college revenues.

Roughly 60% of low-income students pay nothing in public four-year colleges, but school counselor biases influence low-income students to enroll in community college rather than more selective institutions, especially when students are from racial and ethnic minorities.

The message a low-income high school student honors in Nashville heard from his college counselor: “Take the free money. Unlike many of her peers, she didn’t listen, and financial aid and scholarships brought the cost of her tuition at a local university down to $ 1,000 per semester. As long as she doesn’t give up, those payments will be a worthwhile investment. Her journey to a bachelor’s degree will bypass the transfer process, and the loss of credit and time that it all too often entails.

Reducing income-based gaps in college completion by encouraging students to enter community college presents other confusing choices for families. Already, low-income students attend community college for free; the maximum federal Pell grant typically exceeds tuition fees. Since most of the existing Promise programs apply federal financial aid to students first, before dipping into Promise funds, the same federal funds pay tuition fees for low-income students within or outside of the Promise programs – something that many college counselors, students, and their families do not fully understand.

It is clear that students need more than the promise of free lessons. Students and their families need help understanding the costs and benefits of attending various post-secondary institutions and the funding options available. College counselors should educate students on college competitiveness feedback and encourage applications to security, correspondence, and access schools. At this time, students cannot know how much federal aid they will receive until after they decide to apply to college, and low income students complete the FAFSA at low rates. Instead, the federal government could provide financial assistance directly to institutions that have committed to eliminating tuition fees. The “free college” would become truly a “free college”, which students could access in a more transparent manner. Or the applications of the FAFSA and Promise programs could be unified: if students submitted a single application, the duplicates could be reduced. Above all, high schools need to gain resources to offer high-level courses that prepare students to meet college expectations and train them in the skills needed to use campus supports.

After a discouraging period in the lives of working families, they need to be relieved and build hope around the promise of economic opportunity through education. They need bolder and broader solutions than a federal promise focused solely on community college tuition.

Bankruptcy law scholar Jodie Adams Kirshner is a research professor at the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University and author of “Broke: Difficulties and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises.”


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