WASHINGTON, DC – A new report from the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP) elevates students’ stories to contextualize and illuminate financial barriers to college access and success.
The new report, titled The Cost of Opportunity: Student Stories of College Affordability, shares the perpsectives and aspirations of 17 low-income and working-class students based on interviews IHEP conducted over two semesters of their college journeys. The report identifies opportunities for policymakers and institutional leaders to support all students through completion, grounded in students’ experiences and the affordability challenges that they face.
The students featured in the report represent the diversity of today’s college-goers. Among them are Pell Grant recipients, Black, Hispanic, and multiracial students, adult students, student parents, and a veteran student. They represent different pathways to higher education, including students who began at community colleges, hoping to transfer to four-year universities; students who have successfully transferred from community colleges; and students who have returned to higher education. They have a range of ambitions, including careers in business, medicine, law, journalism, and education. And they have all made difficult decisions on their path to reach those goals, including working multiple jobs, working anywhere from four to over 40 hours a week, living at home while attending school, and accumulating both student loan and credit card debt.
“Over the course of this research, we have had an incredible opportunity to connect with talented, motivated college students who are making enormous sacrifices to complete their education and make a critical investment for themselves, their families, and their communities,” said IHEP President, Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D. “These are exactly the students that financial aid was designed to support, but for too long, our system has failed to make a college education truly affordable for low-income and working-class students.”
Across all interviews, students emphatically recognized the value of attaining a degree and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to attend college to learn among peers, gain independence, and invest in their future. While they agreed that college is worth the sacrifices, many students struggled to cover both the tuition and non-tuition costs associated with college. Those affordability challenges, in turn, forced some students to make difficult trade-offs that often put their college success at risk and took a toll on their well being. While financial aid offered the students a lifeline, the process is uncertain, confusing, and complicated, and the high cost of attendance meant that the funds were often insufficient to meet students’ needs.
While the featured students were located across the country, attended different types of institutions, and represented a range of life circumstances, the report reveals that many were experiencing similar challenges. Based on these common themes, the report identifies key barriers, including:
- Need-based financial aid is not adequately meeting the needs of low-income and working-class college students, and the financial aid is often uncertain and confusing.
- Students are struggling to pay for non-tuition costs such as housing, food, child care, transportation, books and emergency expenses.
- In balancing the demands of employment, school, and family, students are forced to make choices that either sacrifice their own and their families’ well-being or their ability to succeed in college.
- Students don’t have the information they need to make important decisions about where to go to college, what to study and how they will afford it.
- Students who want to start at a two-year institution and transfer to a four-year institution as a cost-effective approach to earning a bachelor’s degree face challenges.
IHEP offers concrete, actionable steps that institutions and policymakers can take to more equitably support students through affordability policy, including strengthening need-based aid, targeting financial aid funding toward the students with the greatest need, and providing greater transparency to low-income and working-class students navigating a complex higher education system.
“Equity-minded higher education policy has to begin with listening to students,” said Cooper. “Higher education cannot fulfill its potential as a driver of economic and social mobility without grounding policy and practice in the lived experiences of today’s students, especially low-income students and students of color. We hope decision-makers in government and institutions uplift student stories and make those perspectives the foundation of any college affordability proposals.”