Federal Programs Aim to Increase College Access for Low-Income Students

Making College More Accessible Through Increased Federal Funding

The cost of attending college has become an issue in this year’s presidential election. From the rising cost of tuition to the high rate of student loan debt, the candidates are debating the best ways to solve these situations. Meanwhile, almost behind the scenes, the current administration is taking steps to improve access for some of the poorest students in the country.

It is becoming increasingly important to have a higher level of education in order to compete in the modern American workforce.

Since low-income students have more financial barriers to college attendance, they are falling further behind in their ability to qualify for, and obtain, high-paying jobs. The income gap continues to expand and the cycle repeats itself from one generation to the next.

According to a National Bureau of Economic Research report entitled, “Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion,” less than 10 percent of children born in the bottom one-fourth of household income levels go on to obtain a bachelor’s degree by the age of 25. In comparison, over 50 percent of the students in the top 25 percent manage to achieve this distinction. Although the reasons for this disparity are many, from lack of college-level classes in high school to lack of support systems, money certainly play a huge role in continuing to deny college opportunities to these students. The Department of Education, under the direction of President Obama, is taking a number of steps to alleviate these conditions:

  • The Dual Enrollment Pell Experiment: Federal Pell Grants provide a substantial financial foundation that helps many students afford the cost of college; however, these grants cannot be helpful if students are not able to get admitted to college due to their current educational circumstances. In an effort to build partnerships between high schools and colleges that will ease the transition from one educational forum to another, the Department of Education recently invited 44 postsecondary institutions to participate in an experiment that will allow students taking college-credit courses to access Federal Pell Grants as early as high school. An estimated 10,000 high school students could have the opportunity to access approximately $20 million in Federal Pell Grants to take dual enrollment courses provided by colleges and high schools throughout the nation. Nearly 80 percent of the selected sites are community colleges. The goal is to provide funding so that students will have access to, and can benefit from, advanced coursework at an earlier stage of their educational career. It is felt that participating in dual enrollment programs will lead to better high school grades, increased college enrollments following high school, higher rates of college persistence, greater credit accumulation, and increased rates of credential attainment.
  • America’s Promise Grants: In an effort to expand the availability of job-related college courses, the White House also announced a $100 million competitive grant program focused on expanding workforce training programs at community colleges. These grants are based on a partnership between the Department of Labor, employers, training programs, and technical and community colleges with the goal of establishing tuition-free education programs for unemployed, underemployed, and low-income workers who want to enter industries requiring skilled labor. In addition, 27 new free community college programs have already launched in states, communities and community colleges.
  • Requiring FAFSA Completion: An astonishing 39 percent of community college students do not complete the FAFSA, even though they are likely to qualify for some form of federal, state, institutional or private financial aid. Provisions are being added at various state and federal levels to require and assist students with FAFSA completion in order to increase access to these funds. The FAFSA for the 2017-18 academic year will be online beginning October 1, 2016. Students are heavily encouraged to complete this form as one of the most important steps in the financial aid process.

    Education is a crucial component in obtaining access to highly-skilled and high-paying jobs. These programs and others are designed to ensure access to students of all income levels, in order to level the playing field when it comes to applying for jobs.