College dreams for U.S. students — rich and poor — are at the highest levels ever. But when it comes to attendance and graduation, low-income students lag as far behind the middle class as they did 30 years ago.
More than 90 percent of students in all demographic groups now hope to attend college — the same expectation level for high-school graduation just a few years ago, says James C. Hearn, a professor of higher education at the University of Georgia. But while minority and low-income kids have quickly caught up to middle-class expectations, "big attainment gaps remain between what minority and low-income students aspire to do and what they actually do," he says.
For some of the students who hope to go to college but don't, the availability of aid is not the real problem, says Hearn. "Given the aid that's out there, there are still fewer low-income and minority students attending college than you'd expect," he says.
Some of the barriers between low-income students and college, such as bad schools and difficult family situations, are well-known and intractable. But many researchers are pointing to a hitherto unnoticed problem that's easier to fix: Low-income students and their families are less likely to know that aid is available for them, possibly causing many to give up on their college dreams.
"It really relates to how people grow up and whether they think of themselves as being able to go or not," says Ed St. John, a professor of higher education at the University of Michigan.
While middle- and upper-class students and their families believe college is in the future and prepare for it, many lower-income students doubt they can make it. "And if you can't imagine being able to pay for college, why would you prepare for it?" asks Karen Miksch, an assistant professor of higher education and law at the University of Minnesota.
Research shows that "middle- and upper-class kids get information from a whole variety of sources," says Sara Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, including the Internet, high-school counselors and college-educated family friends. But lower-income students, most of whom attend schools lacking guidance counselors, rely mainly on friends and family with little college experience, she says.
Informing students when they're in middle school that college aid will be available to them is crucial, because when students know they can go to college, they're more likely to stay in school and take courses that will prepare them for it, says Donald E. Heller, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University.
He points to Indiana's successful Twenty-first Century Scholars Program targeting low-income eighth-graders. They are told that they can attend state colleges tuition-free or receive aid to attend a private college in Indiana if they graduate high school with a 2.0 average, use no illegal drugs or alcohol, commit no crimes and enroll in college within two years of graduation.
Among 2,202 students enrolled in the program, 1,752 — nearly 80 percent — enrolled in a college in the state within a year of graduation, according to the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education.
Indiana also has a program to increase parental involvement, and it has worked, says Heller. It "creates a culture of college-going" and "gives the kids an incentive to prepare themselves," he says.
Congress could enact a similar early-commitment program, pledging federal Pell Grants to eligible middle-schoolers, says Heller. "By a conservative estimate, over 75 percent of students who get a free or reduced-price school lunch ultimately will be eligible for Pell," he says. "If they knew about that and kept working in school because of it, they'd get a grant that's more than the average tuition at a community college," he says.
The current system of applying for aid is complicated for a good reason: to target aid to the neediest students. But the complexity itself puts low-income families at a disadvantage because they are more likely to be daunted by the form and less likely to find good help to prepare it, according to a study by Susan M. Dynarski and Judith E. Scott-Clayton of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Dropping the federal-aid application form from 72 questions to a more manageable 14 would result in virtually no change in eligibility for Pell Grants, they found in a recent analysis.
Furthermore, programs such as Georgia's HOPE Scholarship and Social Security student benefits provide plenty of evidence that simplified aid programs can increase college enrollments significantly, they found.