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Rising College Costs May Deter Low-Income Minorities From Entering Science and Engineering

Diversity has been the hot-button topic in American colleges for the past decade and more. Now, in the face of mounting political pressure, schools are looking beyond racial diversity to economic diversity. Lower-income and underrepresented minority students have been particularly hard-hit by staggering tuition hikes and have more to lose if the current trend continues. Tuition increases may dissuade minority students in various income brackets from choosing majors in science and engineering.

The majority of minorities entering science and engineering are from the middle- and upper-income families, but considerable debt and modest earnings (compared to business, law, and medicine) may deter even some high-achieving minority students from choosing these fields.1 Up to 25% of academically qualified low-income students either do not apply to college2 or drop out, unable to keep pace with escalating prices.3

Playing the Financial Aid Game

Because of the escalations, many students have turned to student loans to keep pace with tuition costs. The amount borrowed for college loans has skyrocketed, according to Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.4 For most low-income students, standard loans are not enough. Need-based government support sources, such as Pell Grants and Perkins Loans, are crucial for them to attend college, according to Bridget Terry Long, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor.5 Yet, even these types of financial aid have been least effective for these students. Depending on the type of institution, 74% to 92% of low-income students and 38% to 65% of middle-income students have unmet needs, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics.6

"They just don't know how the game is played," said Thomas Mortenson, a policy analyst for the Council for Opportunity in Education, about the lack of experience many lower-income families have in dealing with financial aid.7 Many "high-income high schools" help students apply to college-entrance preparation classes at top universities, and they sometimes provide private admissions counselors.8

Low-income students, on the other hand, usually don't have access to this kind of support and must use a great deal of their college-prep time for other pressing issues. Instead of devoting time to charities and other extracurricular activities to shore up their college applications, many lower-income students hold down jobs to help their families. This necessity often prevents them from participating in the kinds of glossy extras that college recruiters love, and it actually hurts their financial aid awards.7

Top Schools Stepping Up

The difficulties facing low-income students help explain why so few attend top-tier schools. The Higher Education Research Institute reports that 40% of incoming first-year students in the fall of 2004 come from families making more than $100,000, despite "need-blind" admissions policies at the 42 most selective state universities.8

Recognizing the problem, several top schools are creating programs to help low-income families with tuition. Harvard, as well as the Universities of Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland, will soon give full-tuition grants to undergraduates from low-income families.3 Over 230 private colleges, including Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Emory University, will offer prepaid tuition options to freeze current prices through the Independent 529 Plan. These programs will enable students who already qualify for admission to graduate debt-free, thus allowing minority students to more readily consider careers in science and engineering.

However, these financial aid policies don't go far enough, according to William Bowen, former Princeton University president and current president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Simply giving more financial aid fails to directly address the lack of access most low-income students have to elite schools. Bowen's solution would be for selective schools to consider preference programs for low-income students. He argues that those preferences should not replace minority preferences--as affirmative action opponents propose--because most minority students at elite schools come from middle- and high-income families.9 These new economic preferences will definitely improve the situation for low-income students.

Preferences and Other Affirmative Policies

Preference programs are often criticized by opponents who claim that they actually hurt the beneficiaries because they can't compete at the elite schools where they've gained entry. Jamie Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said top-tier institutions (with their large endowments) are able to increase need-based scholarships but are traditionally reluctant to lower their academic standards.9 Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education's senior vice president, justified this policy, saying colleges should hesitate to admit "academically underprepared" students. However, Anthony Carnevale, vice president for assessments, equity, and careers at the Educational Testing Service, disagrees, saying many lower-income students--with slightly lower SAT scores--could succeed at elite institutions.10

Support for Carnevale comes from an innovative approach sponsored by the Posse Foundation. The program sends teams of 10 to 12 students, tuition-free, from five metropolitan areas to 19 participating, top-tier schools. Posse focuses on leadership--above academics--when selecting predominantly minority students from low-income families.11 The program's 6-year graduation rate is over 90%, even though Posse students would likely not be admitted to these colleges without the program. They use consistent preparatory meetings and student support services throughout the students' college careers to help them matriculate successfully.12

Critics assert that efforts to push disadvantaged students into elite institutions, such as Posse, amount to only a drop in the bucket for overall college admissions. Reindl contends that most lower-tier institutions, which serve mostly low-income students, cannot afford debt-reduction programs. Rising costs have also plagued lower-tier public institutions, and once again disadvantaged students are hardest hit. Clara Lovett, the American Association for Higher Education's president, warned that less prestigious state universities "don't have private endowments, they're getting less and less financial support from the public sector, particularly state legislatures--and it's only going to get worse."3

According to Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College, the cost of paying for public colleges over the past 30 years, as a percentage of family income, has risen from 42% to 71% for low-income families and has held steady at 19% for middle-income and 5% for upper-income families.2 Although this year's financial aid review is considering increasing Pell Grant awards, improving loan repayment options, and transferring funds from rich schools to those with more low-income students, it is also considering eliminating student loan consolidation in the wake of the record federal budget deficit.3

Innovative Answers

With money tighter than ever, new types of solutions are being proposed. Long suggests that low-income students should be automatically eligible for financial aid because the government identifies them through the welfare and free-lunch programs. She also advocates reinstating the Social Security Student Benefit Program, which gave large grants to students with deceased or disabled parents.5

Dorothy Blaney, Cedar Crest College's president, has suggested using income to scale tuitions at state institutions--like graduated income tax--meaning that low-income families would pay less. Since cost per student (not price, which is passed on as tuition) is roughly the same at public and private colleges, she also proposes that a greater proportion of state money for higher education should go directly to students, giving them more flexibility.9

Blaney's argument is relevant, considering that Pennsylvania's private universities accounted for 60% of the state's minority bachelor's degrees in math, science, and engineering, despite the significantly higher tuitions.9 There is evidence to show that decreasing and eliminating debt for lower-income students would likely increase the number of minority students majoring in science and engineering at elite schools and overall. Doing so would also help serve to elevate the socioeconomic status of more students instead of maintaining social advantages, as some college officials worry is happening.3 Long writes, "There is a basic notion in this country of opportunity: Your parents' income (or lack thereof) should not dictate your station in life." 13 I hope she's right.


1 E. P. St. John and C.-G. Chung, Student aid and major choice: A study of high-achieving students of color. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Web site, on 19 April 2004:

2 B. C. Rodrigues, News release (30 March 2004) about report from Florida's Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón, A deficit of understanding: Confronting the funding crisis in higher education and the threat to low-income and minority access. News release sent via e-mail from Beverly Rodrigues on 2 April 2004; available at

3 C. Kleiner, Tuition keeps rising: Will new efforts by schools ease the burden? Online US News and World Report (April 2004). Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 19 April 2004:

4 L. Perlstein, U-Md. to ease freshmen's financial burden: Jobs, grants will replace loans to help neediest graduate debt-free. Online Washington Post (April 2004). Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 13 April 2004:

5 A. Bucuvalas, Who benefits from financial aid? An interview with assistant professor Bridget Terry Long. Online HGSE News (April 2004). Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 8 April 2004:

6 T. Cross, The good news that the Thernstroms neglected to tell. Online Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (March 2004). Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 8 April 2004:

7 Money woes confront first generation college students. Online CNN (March 2004). Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 8 March 2004: (link no longer active)

8 D. Leonhardt, As wealthy fill top colleges, new efforts to level the field. Online New York Times (April 2004). Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 22 April 2004:

9 D. Blaney, Who should pay the bill for a private education? The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 2004).

10 P. Schmidt, Noted higher-education researcher urges admissions preferences for the poor. The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 2004).

11 Posse Foundation Inc., What is Posse? Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 13 April 2004:

12 J. Mathews, Learning to survive in education with a Posse. Online The Washington Post (April 2004). Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 13 April 2004:

13 B. T. Long, Who can afford college? The economics behind access. Online HGSE News (August 2003). Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 8 April 2004:

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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