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College Access

College Access - Paying For College

The term college access today encapsulates a number of different-though
often related-concerns. For many middle- and lower-income families,
college access essentially means figuring out how to pay for a postsecondary
education. To some members of minority groups and their advocates,
meanwhile, it is about overcoming discrimination, social disadvantages, and
associated college-enrollment gaps. And in a somewhat different vein,
college access begs the question of whether high school graduates are fully
prepared to enter college.

To help lower the financial barriers to college access, the U.S. Department
of Education sponsors a number of student financial-assistance programs,
which are the largest source of student aid in the nation. The programs
provide over $40 billion a year in grants, loans, and work-study assistance
to students pursuing a postsecondary education. Each year more than half the
students attending college get some form of financial aid to help defer the
high costs of higher education.

Yet in spite of these programs, low-income families are still 32 percent
less likely to send their children to college than families with higher
incomes, according to a February 2001 report from the U.S. Education
Department's Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. A major
reason for this is that the unmet need-or the difference between the cost of
one year of education and the amount of aid and family contributions paid
toward that cost-for low-income families is much higher than for high-income
families. According to the report, the average unmet need to attend a
public 4-year university is $3,800 for low-income students but only $400 for
high-income students.

To combat this trend, some experts-including the Education Department's
Advisory Committee-see a need for a greater emphasis on need-based aid as
opposed to merit-based aid.

Racial and ethnic disparities persist in college access as well. Hispanics
and African-Americans are not enrolling at the same rate as whites and
Asians. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Education's Office
of Educational Research & Improvement (OERI), roughly three quarters of high
school graduates in 1994 started postsecondary education within two years of
graduating from high school. But while 86 percent of Asian graduates and 76
percent of white graduates enrolled in postsecondary education, only 71
percent of Latino and African-American graduates did.

Imbalances are also evident in the number of minority students that complete
degrees. According to a 2000 report from the NCES Digest of Education
Statistics, of the students who received Associate degrees in 1997-98, 76
percent were white, 10 percent were African-American, 7 percent Hispanic and
4.5 percent Asian. For Bachelor's degrees, the difference becomes even
greater: 78 percent were white, 8 percent were black, 5.5 percent were
Hispanic, and 6 percent were Asian.

Experts generally blame the gaps in college completion between white and
minority students on the often-inferior quality of K-12 education for
minorities, insufficient financial aid for college expenses, and what they
see as a failure by many colleges to provide support for minority students
once they matriculate.

Current efforts by college and universities to improve the enrollment and
completion rates of minority students include using race-based admissions
and aid policies (although less aggressively than in the past, on account of

legal challenges) and implementing precollege outreach programs in minority
areas and schools.

A more recent concern related to college access is that many high school
graduates do not appear to be ready to take on college-level work. While
more than seven in 10 recent U.S. high school graduates enroll in a
postsecondary education, nearly half of all college students are required to
do remedial coursework, according to "Youth at the Crossroads: Facing High
School and Beyond," a 2001 report by the Education Trust. Further, the
report notes, more than one-quarter of freshman at four-year colleges and
nearly half of those at two-year colleges do not make it to their sophomore

To better prepare students for continuing education, policymakers,
administrators, and educators have been working to build stronger ties
between colleges and universities and K-12 systems. For example, efforts are
now under way in a number of states to align the academic standards students
must meet to finish high school with the skills they need to enter and
succeed in higher education. College-school integration programs stretching
all the way back to the early grades, often known as K-16 initiatives, have
also become increasingly popular.

In addition, some institutions of higher education have formed individual
partnerships with secondary schools. Such partnerships vary widely and may
involve administrative cooperation, student teaching, faculty exchanges,
student tutoring, or field trips. In general, they are designed to enhance
the college preparatory curriculum and give students a better sense of what
to in college.