Failing Low-Income Students: How Targeted College Information Could Improve Enrollment

Aug 27, 2013Asha M. Fereydouni

A focus on student loan rates isn't enough to help low-income students. The government needs to improve how it helps these students get enrolled in the first place.

President Obama recently signed a bipartisan bill that ties student loan interest rates to the financial markets, which allows this year’s undergraduates to borrow at 3.9 percent interest -- nearly half of what they would have paid if Congress had failed to act. As a recent college graduate, I, like many of my peers, was very excited to learn of this decision. However, while the federal government has done great work to help those students who are already enrolled in college, it is effectively failing those students who come from families at or below the poverty line.

A recent Brookings Institute and Princeton University study notes that the federal government is spending around $1 billion per year on programs to help low-income students. Despite this funding, the four major college prep programs, Upward Bound, Upward Bound Math-Science, Student Support Services, and Talent Search (known collectively as TRIO), have had “no major effects on college enrollment or completion.” The study shows that students from low-income backgrounds who earn college degrees are 80 percent less likely to be poor. Unfortunately, Brookings and Princeton report that only 34 percent of low-income students actually enroll in college. Of that 34 percent, only 11 percent graduate.

The federal government is spending $1 billion with little or no return, policymakers are focused on other issues, and hardworking low-income students are paying the price. The government needs to refocus its efforts and provide targeted information to low-income students.

The closest thing to such a resource has been developed and marketed by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB created an 11-part online roadmap called the "Financial Aid Comparison Shopper" to help students navigate the college application process.

This tool, while it has some virtues, still effectively fails low-income college students. The first stages of the CFPB tool, “apply for college” and “research schools,” which would be most relevant to low-income applicants unsure about their college prospects and financial options, merely link to a page hosted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The NCES page (which looks like it was made in the early 2000s) asks visitors to type in the name of a school, or search by state, zip code, level of award, or institution type. The burden is on the student to search for the right kinds of schools in the right states. There is little guidance as to what kind of school will be the best fit for a given student. By linking to an old-fashioned page with untargeted information, the CFPB is not providing real guidance to low-income applicants. The impacts of this are severe.

Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Stanford University, studied 40,000 low-income students and found that simply providing students with an informational tool-kit with targeted information about various colleges and their respective costs made students 53 percent more likely to apply to a peer institution (an institution where the low-income students were just as qualified as their high-income counterparts), 78 percent more likely to be admitted, and 50 percent more likely to enroll.

If the CFPB seeks to remedy the low rates of low-income students attending college, the site needs to be re-worked. It needs to ask students to input specific details about their academic and financial backgrounds and then present a list of potential schools based on those facts.

But the burden is not just on the CFPB. This failure to reach low-income students is a much larger problem that can be seen within all of the federal government’s billion dollar efforts to help potential college students. The untargeted resources transcend every single federal effort.  

While the reduction of student loan rates is a major bipartisan achievement with real-world implications, there is still much to be done to increase enrollment and graduation rates among low-income students. The CFPB needs to update its tool, the Department of Education needs to revamp its efforts, and we must not forget those low-income students who have the grades and the drive, but just need a little more guidance in the college search process.

Asha M. Fereydouni is an alumnus of the University of California, Davis and the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, and is currently a graduate student at Oxford. 

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