Two Small Costs Creating Big Barriers for Low-Income Students

It’s no secret that the cost of higher education has gone up, and gone up dramatically. With many colleges’ annual overall cost over $50,000 this year and set to rise, stories about the cost of college are aplenty. But there are a host of costs in the college application process that don’t make the headlines. These costs are barriers to college access and in some cases barriers to students choosing a school where they are most likely to complete their degree. These costs might not be why so many students face untold amounts of debt upon graduation. Yet they are a significant reason that students from low-income families do not enroll in colleges where they could be successful, and so contributes the to graduation gap between low and high-income students.

There are two small costs that create barriers to higher education for low-income students: undermatching and application fees. In undermatching, students enroll in colleges that do not match their academic abilities. Often, more financial resources are available at more selective institutions that would in fact make college affordable for low-income students, but they don’t apply. Application fees present a barrier because they discourage applicants, both due to an (often wrong) impression that the college is too expensive, or the paperwork involved is too extensive.

Why Does College Matter?

The introduction to a White House report on higher education and low-income students states, “The benefits of post-secondary education are well documented and have major implications for economic growth, equality, and social mobility. Getting a post-secondary credential leads to greater lifetime earnings, lower unemployment, and lower poverty. Over the course of one’s working lifetime, the median earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients are 65 percent higher than median earnings of high-school graduates.”

About 1 in 10 people from low income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25, compared with nearly half of people from middle-income families. (For the statistics I’ll cite and their relevant sources, visit this White House Report).

A college education provides a particular kind of benefit for low-income students. It’s an access point that doesn’t, at least on its face, require more than the hard work, grit and intelligence to successfully enroll and persist.

Post-secondary education for these students is intrinsically attainable. By its nature, education requires only that a student be equipped to do the work, not that they have an existing network of influential connections or significant material resources. Post-secondary education brings low-income students to a different horizon of opportunities. In other words, as the gap between a high school diploma and a college diploma widens, a college degree grows even more important for those students who otherwise don’t have access to those opportunities.

The Hidden Costs: Undermatching

Only about 8 percent of high-achieving, low-income students are “achievement-typical” - meaning that they apply to and select schools that match their abilities, according to economists Caroline Hoxby (Stanford University) and Christopher Avery (Harvard) in a Brookings Report. In fact, Hoxby and Avery found that roughly half of students from low-income backgrounds do not apply to a single, more academically selective, school that matched their abilities.

The problem is not only that high-achieving students aren’t applying to these colleges– it’s that enrolling in such colleges has a tremendous benefit to them. According to the White House report, “The returns on college choice are significant; generally, when students attend more selective schools, they are more likely to graduate, graduate faster, and have better earnings outcomes, even after controlling for student ability. These returns are likely due in part to the increased rigor and additional resources at relatively more selective institutions. Students are likely to also benefit from the positive influence of being surrounded by high-achieving peers.”

Hoxby and Avery are co-authors of a major study in college enrollment among low-income students. They found that these students more often don’t apply to colleges that match their academic ability. The colleges might stand at the ready with financial aid and great academic resources, but the students don’t put in the applications. (For the full research report, click here).

“So what is the reason these students don't apply?” queried a Stanford Report of Hoxby and Avery’s recent study. “Experts speculate that students are either poorly informed about their college choices or just did not want to attend selective colleges. For example, students might believe top colleges cost much more when they really cost less. Stanford's financial aid program, for example, covers tuition for undergraduates from households with incomes of $100,000 or less. Those with incomes below $60,000 pay no tuition, room or board.”

According to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, high school guidance counselors working with students from low-income schools have nearly twice the average number of students to see - about 1,000 students compared with a national average of 470 (you can see the ratios here). One possible solution to getting students better information about their college choices, as well as assisting them with the application process, fee waivers, and other financial paperwork, would be to invest in the high school guidance counselors at these schools. Finding a way to support low-income schools in having a more robust guidance counselor program could ease the burden on existing counselors and give them the space and resources to better equip their students.

Getting information to students is vital if we hope to match them with colleges that fit their interests and abilities. Given how significant a well-matched college is for persistence, graduation, employment and earnings, the seemingly small cost of students without information escalates into a significant barrier for true access.

The Hidden Costs: Application Fees

Cost is not just about the sticker price of the college; it’s about the application process itself. Research suggests that the costs during admissions processes can make students hesitate to apply to more schools. As the White House report summarizes, “Waiving fees and reducing additional paperwork have also been shown to encourage students to apply to more colleges. Jonathan Smith found that a 13 percent decrease in application costs induces students to apply to one more college, which in turn increases the probability of enrolling by 18 percent.”

In response to this, Reed College and a number of other colleges have eliminated their application fees. Reed’s president, John R. Kroger, described the college’s decision this way: “We have great financial aid, and we’re sort of worried that people will never figure that out.” (For the full article from Inside Higher Ed, click here).

Hoxby and Avery are again key researchers cited in the move towards eliminating these up-front fees and paperwork that often deter students from applying. Their research suggests that high-achieving, low-income students, especially those from more rural backgrounds, face barriers to information and in the kind of application fees and paperwork. These students face barriers that seem small; in reality, the fact that application fees and paperwork deter a student from applying to a well-matched school should give us pause.

The conversation about college cost isn’t just about how much a typical school is or how much debt a typical student has, or even how significant a financial aid package can be. In the context of low-income students, it should be about cost in terms of barriers to applications, barriers to their persistence from year to year, and barriers to their final completion of a degree - which may not have the glamour of descrying the $60,000 sticker price, but does get at the heart of why many lower-income students don’t enroll in college.

Perhaps it is worth thinking about eliminating the application fee entirely from all colleges. Perhaps it is worth looking more closely at recruitment tactics and investing in resources that would reach lower-income students better - a cost to be borne by colleges, not students. Hoxby and Avery found that investing in different marketing techniques and application processes increased college match by about 41 percent, with 19 percent more applications (see statistics here). While very few colleges will be able to tackle the student debt crisis on their own, many colleges could invest in resources to open their doors wider for low-income students.

A Final Consideration: Justice

And what about us, reading this article? Studying low-income students and barriers to college access might appear to screen us off from being involved much (how many of us work at colleges where we could advocate eliminating fees) or knowing how to engage the data (how many of us would know what to write to our Congress member about it?).

I was humbled and challenged by an article in The Atlantic the other day. In it, a teacher asked readers to consider whether we hadn’t sold these students short in thinking about the significance of college for them exclusively in terms of the economic benefits of a college degree. He writes,

“The black and Latino kids I teach live in Inglewood and West Adams in Los Angeles. Their parents are house-cleaners, truck drivers, and non-union carpenters. When administrators, counselors, and teachers repeat again and again that a college degree will alleviate economic hardship, they don’t mean to suggest that there is no other point to higher education. Yet by focusing on this one potential benefit, educators risk distracting them from the others, emphasizing the value of the fruits of their academic labor and skipping past the importance of the labor itself. The message is that intellectual curiosity plays second fiddle to financial security.”

I have to pause there. Have I missed something crucial to justice in writing this piece the way that I have?

I thought about students from low-income backgrounds as a group needing a particular kind of attention or recruitment, as a group underserved, as a group to whom a college education would be especially meaningful. I don’t know that it’s wrong to do so.

But I also don’t know that it is right, because when I talk about “low-income students” and “post-secondary education” as if these things are merely pawns I’m moving around a policy chessboard, I’ve forgotten that first they are human beings made in the image of God and that their intellectual passions, curiosities, abilities, should be nurtured in their education.

For some students that will be college; for others it might be a great job doing something else, trade school, working with a church or in the local community. I’ve been so caught up in thinking about college as benefitting people because of its economic ramifications I have forgotten that it has a more primary purpose: to educate. To teach, to gather learners together to share passion and to be excited. Low-income students are full members of this endeavor. Their intellectual curiosity shouldn’t play second fiddle to their financial security - especially when we think about justice.

If I am to be concerned about college access and college cost, it cannot just be because low-income students don’t tend to apply to selective colleges that would give them a leg up in the job market. It should be because the academic communities would be better for having them, having their perspective and insight, having their questions and curiosities. It is because, in addition to financial security that can be gained from higher education, there is a great good to be gained from learning together, and no member of society should be cut off from that endeavor. Barriers to access - from the smallest to the greatest - should be our priority because we need these voices at the table. And it shouldn’t be an application fee or a lack of information that keeps them away.

-Hilary Yancey is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University, where she hopes to focus her studies in bioethics and the philosophy of the human person. You can find Hilary writing about everyday life and faith at her blog: chatting on Twitter and Instagram at @hilaryyancey.