5 Things Low-Income Students Would Change About Financial Aid

As the First Lady introduces a new initiative to create more college graduates and the Obama administration moves to simplify the FAFSA, many Americans have responded with confusion; how could a bit of paperwork deter young people from attending college?

In fact, the FAFSA is just the beginning of a complex set of obstacles low-income students face in financing their education. When asked what they would change about the financial aid process, low-income young people and their advocates focused on five key innovations for making the college aid process better:

1. Publicize the average actual cost of attendance rather than advertising only the maximum, full-pay cost

“I saw the full-pay price for my dream school and thought, ‘there’s absolutely no way; this will stay a dream and nothing more.’ Then I learned that my grades and family income entitled me to lots of help paying the cost. Many students like me learn this too late or never.”—Julia, college sophomore

Fact: A student attending a private college will receive an average 44 percent “discount” off the published tuition when grants and scholarships are accounted for.


2. Make the application process easier by building the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid) into tax forms our families already complete

“The current process is complex, cumbersome and redundant, presenting a huge barrier to postsecondary education for students that depend on financial aid. There are more than a hundred questions on the FAFSA, and less than a third of those questions are actually relevant to most students. By making the application process smoother and easier, students and families can spend more of their time finding and selecting colleges that are good fits, which is a crucial step in setting students up for success through college graduation.”—Jarell Skinner-Roy, Program Manager, College Possible

Fact: According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as many as 2 million students who are likely eligible for financial aid don’t even apply.

3. Increase Pell grants so we can take out fewer loans and work fewer hours during school

“Low-income students manage many—often conflicting—roles as they work to graduate; they are responsible for younger siblings, they are working many hours and they are learning to be college students. Removing the pressure of full-time work dramatically improves their chances of making it, pursuing their dreams and meeting a growing need for qualified workers,”—Rachel Lopez, college coach.

Fact: a student facing a $10,000 shortfall in financing their education for the year will need to work a minimum of 1,250 hours, earning minimum wage, to make up the difference.

4. Give us a common application for and create a clearinghouse for private scholarships

“Without someone to assist in navigating through the plethora of scholarship search engines and arenas from which scholarship opportunities come from, students’ chances of finding and applying for scholarships fitting their eligibility as well as the likelihood of them winning it are significantly lowered – especially low-income students.”—Kelly Schaer, College Possible Program Director

Fact: Students must apply for an average of six scholarships to earn one and each application takes a significant time investment.

5. Broaden the criteria for scholarships and grants to recognize our experiences and grit

Bonus ideas from our program officers:

  • Pell grants only make up a segment of the student aid low-income students need to be able to afford college: for many low-income students, private scholarships and institutional merit aid are a critical bridge to being able to afford college without taking on exorbitant debt.
  • Scholarships and aid awards are frequently tied to stellar academics and extensive involvement in activities outside of school. Students from low-income backgrounds—the students who need extra aid for college the most—are the least likely to have access to or time for these activities, frequently due to commitments like work and child care outside of school.
  • Many admissions offices have been taking strides in recognizing the value these outside life experiences and “grit” bring to campus; scholarship providers should do the same to deliver on the promise of creating a more economically diverse and successful student body.



2012 Tuition Discounting Study.” National Association of College and University Business Officers

“Few Pay Full Price For College Today, Should You?” Forbes Investing, July 2013

“How Students and Parents Pay for College.” College Board Advocacy & Policy Center Analysis Brief, March 2013

Minnesota Statewide Longitudinal Education Data System (SLEDS)

National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS)

“Understanding the Working College Student.” American Association of University Professors, July-August 2010


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