The rising cost of college education has an impact on all students and families, but is felt the hardest by low-income students.

A study released early this month by The Education Trust indicates that “over the past three decades, college tuition and fees have grown at four times the rate of inflation.” The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, meanwhile, offers a handful ways to beat the rising cost of college in Florida: attending a community college for two years, living at home, looking for textbooks’ bargain-basement prices, earning college credit in high school, starting a 529 tax-free college investment fund to save or invest for college costs and winning a scholarship.

These recommendations may come in handy given that, according to the Education Trust report, the percentage of family income needed to pay for college has mushroomed. This is especially true for the lowest-income households. These families must pay or borrow an amount equivalent to nearly three-quarters of their annual income to send just one child to a four-year college.

The Education Trust report adds that “nearly 1,200 four-year colleges and universities have comparable data on what low-income students pay for college.” Of these, only five institutions demonstrate successin three key areas:

  • Enrolling a proportion of low-income students that is at least as high as the national average.
  • Asking these students to pay a portion of their family income no greater than what the average middle-income student pays for a bachelor’s degree.
  • Offering all students at least a 1-in-2 chance at graduation.

The five institutions that survived what the Trust calls “conservative cuts around affordability, quality, and accessibility” are from public university systems: two in California, two in New York and one in North Carolina.

The Trust report also highlights that the federal government’s Pell Grant program, designed to aid students with the most financial need,

has shifted attention away from the need-based philosophy underpinning the program. In recent budget debates, most policymakers have focused on ways to control the “unsustainable growth in the Pell Grant program” (total spending is estimated at more than $33 billion in FY2010). Meanwhile, the $19.4 billion spent on tuition tax credits and deductions in 2010 — of which 61 and 91 percent of beneficiaries, respectively, were middle-income and upper income families — have largely avoided scrutiny.

The 2008 National Report Card (.pdf), a study issued by The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, indicates that despite modest improvement in enrollment, for example, there are persisitent disparities that must be addressed if the U.S. is to “make significant headway in increasing the educational attainment of its population.”

National Report Card data shows that gaps in enrollment among racial/ethnic groups have not diminished: Out of all 2008 high school graduates, 73 percent of whites, 56 percent of blacks and 58 percent of Hispanics were expected to enroll in college for the fall semester.

The Report Card adds that 91 percent of high school students from families in the highest income group (above $100,000) enroll in college, while enrollment rate for students from middle-income families (from $50,001 to $100,000) is 78 percent. For those in the lowest-income group ($20,000 and below), the rate is 52 percent.

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