'Fear Factor' Keeps Low-Income Students From College

Katy Hopkins
U.S.News & World Report LP

Some low-income students never apply to college because they don't think they can pay for it, a university system president said recently--which may contribute to an economic diversity gap on some campuses.

"The gap is from the family that won't even allow their son or daughter to apply because ... they are so afraid that they can't do this financially that they won't even try," University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman said at a panel last Wednesday. "I do think there's a fear factor--I really do."

To combat the daunting prospect of paying for college, the University of Michigan previously "tried to take fear out of the equation" by offering strong financial aid packages to state residents from low-income families, Coleman said during a seminar titled "Can the Next President Put Public Universities Back on Top?" at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

But "if there was any loan part, it scared away the families," she said. Now, the university does not include loans in the financial aid packages for Michigan students whose families make less than $40,000 a year, and has tried to educate prospective families about their options.

[Find out how to apply to college for free.]

The University of Michigan isn't the only school that avoids loans in the packages of low-income students. Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, for example, will not give loans to students from families that make less than $50,000 annually, according to FinAid.org.

Other schools that make the no-loan list are Appalachian State University, a North Carolina institution that replaces loans with grants for state residents with family income below the Federal Poverty Line, and Arizona State University, which swaps loans with work-study assignments and grants for state residents from families that make $25,000 or less.

An aversion to loans--at least from private lenders--is "kind of like a schism," notes Carly Eichhorst, associate director of financial aid at Augsburg College in Minnesota. "Low-income families are very, very hesitant to use private debt--and it's a good thing to avoid," she says.

"Middle- and upper-income families probably aren't as hesitant to tap into private debt because they're used to more complex funding sources. They're just a little bit more accustomed to debt as a means to an end."

[See which colleges are the most economically diverse.]

Students from any economic background can estimate what college will cost them by experimenting with net price calculators. The online tools take family income into consideration when calculating roughly what a student will pay for the first year at college.

Economic diversity was just one of the issues tackled at Wednesday's panel presentation, hosted by the University of California--Los Angeles and Zocalo Public Square. Panelists also discussed affirmative action, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education (STEM), and the value of a college degree, among other topics.

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