28 May, 2016
Financial aid is an important resource for students who want to attend college in the U.S. but don't have enough money.
Financial aid is offered by banks, the government, and the school a student plans to attend.
But research shows the amount of financial aid colleges and universities provide low-income students has decreased.
The National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES, collects information about education across the country. Last year the NCES, a part of the Department of Education, reported that more than 41 percent of all full-time students attending college for the first time in 2014 received financial aid from their school.
But the NCES report also shows the average amount of institutional aid for low-income students has decreased steadily from 1996 to 2012.
The average amount of institutional aid given to the lowest-income students was $2,540 in 1996. The average amount given to the highest-income students was $3,327 in the same year.
That indicates that students with the greatest need received less financial aid than higher-income students.
In 2012, low-income students received an average of $5,300 while high-income students received an average of $7,800. Again, the students with the greatest need received less financial aid than higher-income students.
Ben Miller is the Senior Director for Post-Secondary Education at the Center for American Progress, an organization that studies and reports on American society. Miller says the problem goes back earlier than 1996.
He says the problem is colleges want to look better in rankings like the U.S. News and World Report, a media company that creates a list of what it calls "America's Best Colleges."
The company bases the list on information like the average standardized test results of a school's students. A college with higher average test results has a better chance of being higher on U.S. News and World Report's list.
Miller says higher-income students usually have higher test results and grade averages. Schools have begun to use their institutional aid to try to appeal to those types of students.
When schools take students with better academic records and are able to turn other students away, they look more prestigious, he says.
"The problem is, we haven't come up with a good way to evaluate colleges on meaningful things. You can't go out there and find out ‘What's the college where I'm going to learn the most?' or ‘What's the college where I'm going to get the most skills for my money, that's going to be my best value?' And so instead we use a lot of things that we think might represent quality and value but really don't necessarily."
The College Board lists the average cost of universities in the U.S. They looked at the average cost for residents to attend a public four-year institution in their state. They found the cost was $9,410 for the 2015-2016 academic year. The average cost for a private four-year institution was $32,405 for the same year.
The U.S. government spent about $31.5 billion on Pell grants in the 2013-2014 academic year. The Pell Grant program is the main source of federal financial aid. The government has offered Pell grants since 1972.
But Andrew Nichols says that federal financial aid alone is not enough to help low-income students. Nichols is the Director for Higher Education Research and Data Analytics at the Education Trust, an organization that fights for equal access to education for all people.
Nichols helped write a report in 2015 on some of the problems low-income students face. This report said half the students using Pell grants received a bachelor's degree within six years.
About 65 percent of students who did not use Pell grants received a degree in the same amount of time.
This does not mean that students with more money are smarter, Nichols says. Working more than 15 hours a week can cause students to perform poorly in the classroom.
"So you don't have enough aid so you need to work. And then when you start working it takes away from your ability to focus on your studies. And then when that happens you could possibly lose your scholarship, which could mean that you have less money. And so it's kind of a very ugly cycle that some students can get in."
Nichols adds that a lot of African-American, Latino and first-generation students are often low income as well. These communities are often underserved.
"Oftentimes the best predictor of success is who you're born to and where you live. And these aren't things that people earn, these are things that you're given. And so what we know is in this country, low-income students don't receive the same quality of education that students from more affluent backgrounds ..."
But there is more to the problem than colleges trying to make themselves look good. State governments have decreased funding to their public universities for over 20 years, says Michael Mitchell.
"The vast majority of students go to public universities ... which means that states play a huge role in making sure that college is affordable across the country. And over the past few years, as states have cut funding, it makes it much more difficult for the vast majority of students to go and afford college."
Mitchell is a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The center is an organization that studies how the government could use its money to reduce poverty.
He wrote a report in May about state funding to public universities. The report shows only four states -- Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming – are spending more money per student than before the economic recession in 2008.
On average, spending in other states is down 17 percent per student from what is was in 2008.
I'm Pete Musto.
Pete Musto reported and wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.
How should schools choose who gets financial aid? What kind of support exists for low-income students in your country? Let us know in the Comments, and post on 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
income – n. money that is earned from work, investments or business
institutional aid – n. money that a college or university gives to a student to help them pay the cost of attending that school
standardized test – n. a test where all test-takers take the same test under the same or reasonably equal conditions
grade – n. a number or letter that indicates how a student performed in a class or on a test
prestigious – adj. respected and admired for being successful or important
evaluate – v. to judge the value or condition of someone or something in a careful and thoughtful way
resident(s) – n. someone who lives in a particular place
grant(s) – n. an amount of money that is given to someone by a government or company to be used for a particular purpose
bachelor's degree – n. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after four years of study
focus – n. a main purpose or interest
scholarship – n. an amount of money that is given by a school or organization to a student to help pay for the student's education
cycle – n. a set of events or actions that happen again and again in the same order
affluent – adj. having a large amount of money and owning many expensive things
funding – n. an amount of money that is used for a special purpose
affordable – adj. easily paid for