Press Release

New Ed Trust Research Sheds Light on the Adage That Students From Low-Income Backgrounds Can Work Their Way Through College

WASHINGTON (December 17, 2019) — The idea that students from low-income backgrounds can work their way through college with a minimum wage job without taking on debt is largely a myth from a bygone era. Late-night comedian Hasan Minhaj made the point in Congressional testimony earlier this year, and new research by The Education Trust backs him up.

How Affordable Are Public Colleges in Your State for Low-Income Students finds that, at public colleges in nearly every state, there is a college affordability gap that wedges students from low-income backgrounds between a rock and a hard place: either take on burdensome debt that will loom over their heads and constrain their lives for years to come, or work so many hours they jeopardize their chances of ever finishing their degree.

“A college degree is the most reliable path to the middle class, but students from low-income backgrounds face a substantial affordability gap at public colleges in nearly every state,” said John B. King Jr., Ed Trust president and CEO. “Congress should at least double the Pell Grant to begin restoring its purchasing power, and every state legislature should provide adequate and equitable funding for public colleges that enroll the greatest share of students from low-income backgrounds.”

On average, in-state traditional (first-time, full-time) students from low-income backgrounds at public four-year colleges still owe $6,500 to cover college costs even after subtracting financial aid that doesn’t need to be repaid, and after subtracting income earned from working 10 hours per week at state minimum wage. These are students in families earning just $30,000 per year or less.

“The full cost of college should be debt-free for students from low-income backgrounds and affordable for all,” said Andrew H. Nichols, Ph.D., Ed Trust senior director of higher education research and data analytics.

“In states like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, students from low-income backgrounds have to work more than 40 hours a week on top of a full-time course load at a public four-year college to avoid student debt. In four out of five states, students from low-income backgrounds have to work more than 20 hours a week to cover four-year college costs without borrowing. That’s not how public higher education should work in the wealthiest country in the world,” Nichols continued.

College presidents have joined the call to make college more affordable. “Many Lincoln students are first-generation college students,” said Brenda A. Allen, Ph.D., president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the first degree-granting historically Black college or university in the country. “Often, our students who receive maximum federal and state aid still have a gap in covering their full cost of attendance. We work hard with community partners to provide scholarships and internships that will fill that gap for Lincoln students, but federal and state policymakers need to do much more to make college affordable, here in Pennsylvania and across the country, especially for students from low-income backgrounds.”

In most states, there is a college affordability gap even at lower-priced community and technical colleges. The affordability gap at community and technical colleges is, on average, about $2,500 for students from low-income backgrounds. Even states like California — where community college looks very affordable for the traditional students covered in this new report — have more work to do to make college affordable for students who still struggle to pay for college.

“This new report suggests financial aid seems to be working for traditional students from the lowest income backgrounds at community college in California,” said Christopher J. Nellum, Ph.D., Ed Trust-West deputy director of research and policy. “But those students represent just a sliver of the over two million community college students in our state. Most California community college students attend part time while working, and many are returning to college after some time away from school. The existing financial supports are insufficient to enable these students to afford college. California should expand and fully fund the Cal Grant and provide adequate and equitable funding for community colleges so all students can afford them.”

How Affordable concludes with a call to action for policymakers to:

  • Invest in need-based aid at the state and federal level, including at least doubling the Pell Grant;
  • Ensure approaches to free college cover the full cost of attendance for low-income students; and
  • Reinvest in higher education at the state level to provide adequate and equitable funding for public higher education.