We are failing low-income students

By Ivy Lewis, Guest Writer

Since the 1990s, attending college has evolved from one of many pathways to success to a near necessity in the American job market, with many jobs that once had no barrier to entry now requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. Despite this shift, access to higher education has become more difficult for working class students. 

The lifelong benefits of higher education are significant; those with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn roughly $30,000 more annually relative to those with a high school diploma. 

Graduating from college is one of the most reliable ways to break the cycle of poverty, but access to quality higher education is not evenly distributed across socioeconomic classes. 

Addressing this issue is vital to ensuring that everyone has an equitable chance to attend and graduate college, and it will require serious effort on the part of administrators at Xavier and other private institutions. 

Although a greater number of low-income students are enrolling in college, they are more likely to attend two-year and for-profit schools and less likely to graduate compared to their middle- and upper-class peers. Students from families below the federal poverty line make up roughly 20% of the total college population but just 13% of students at selective private schools. 

Most troublingly, only 14% of low-income students graduate within six years of enrollment, compared to 60% of higher income students. When asked why they were not able to graduate, most of these students identified a lack of sufficient financial aid as the primary reason they decided to leave school. Many of these students are forced to work full-time while going to school, which compromises their ability to get involved on campus and live up to their academic potential.  

Getting more low-income students to enroll in community and for-profit schools is still a step forward, but the benefits of a college education increase dramatically for people who are able to go to four-year universities. Tuition at four-year colleges has increased disproportionately relative to inflation, growing 260% from 1980-2014. 

At Xavier, tuition for the 2019-2020 school year was $40,450, or roughly $20,000 per semester. Although many students are able to receive financial aid, the price tag on a Xavier education is clearly significant even for those from middle- and upper-class families. 

Consequently, most students at Xavier come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Lack of economic diversity harms more than low-income students. Xavier is missing out on the intellectual and creative contributions of a huge group of people with unique perspectives not typically seen in higher education. 

If higher education wants to diversify and increase the number of low-income students on campus, reform needs to start as early as possible and with the youngest age groups. 

Gaps in academic performance based on socioeconomic status are present as early as elementary school, largely because working class students usually attend poorly-funded public schools. Giving low-income students the chance to go to college will require universal preschool, increased funding in public elementary schools, free meal programs and (of course) high school and college scholarships based on income. 

The Senate has recently proposed a plan outlining a path to universal preschool, which has been shown to decrease the income-based gap in performance. Although more reform will be needed to prepare students for college, if passed, this bill would be a solid step in the right direction. 

Although gaps in academic aptitude and college readiness appear early, they amplify as students enter high school and prepare for college. 

Increased funding for public high schools would allow low-income students to take AP classes and earn college credit, thus preparing them for the rigors of college level courses. 

Beyond academics, the financial aid offered to working class students is frequently insufficient and normally comes from national programs, such as the Pell Grant, rather than the universities themselves. 

If we want to ensure fair access to higher education, college administrators must be willing to be flexible with the needs of working-class students. 

The process of reforming education to meet the needs of everyone, regardless of income, will be long and arduous. However, with concentrated effort, there are ways we can reduce the barriers and give low-income students  the chance to live up to their potential in academic settings at Xavier and across the country.