Low-Income Students Want Opportunity. Why Are We Saying No?
By Rich Nickel
The Hechinger Report recently published an article highlighting our national failure to sufficiently fund financial aid programs intended to help low-income students afford the cost of college. Due to insufficient funding and slashed budgets—and, in some states, aid programs that have been suspended entirely—hundreds of thousands of students who apply and qualify for need-based financial aid are being turned away due to lack of funds.
By doing this, states further marginalize students and families who already are at a disadvantage. As the article notes, the students who need-based aid programs target—those with lower levels of knowledge about college and financial aid—are the very ones who are denied the funding that would help them afford college.
States across the country know full well the consequences of their deliberate decisions to insufficiently fund their need-based aid programs. They know that many eligible students will not get the support they need and that the very purpose of the program will be subverted. This is a failure at all levels, from statehouses to those of us in the education community. It is an abdication of responsibility. To our great shame, Arizona stands out as one of the states that has failed low-income students most egregiously.
For starters, Arizona does not even have a true state-funded need-based aid grant program. The AZLEAP program cited in the article does very little to meaningfully expand higher education access for low-income students. In 2017, AZLEAP, which requires participating institutions to provide matching contributions equal to the state’s, distributed a paltry sum total of $2,319,500 to just 3,257 recipients statewide. In comparison, Texas provides $357 million, and just 11 percent of students in need go unfunded.
Not only that, Arizona does not track the number of low-income students who are eligible for aid but do not receive it. This makes it nearly impossible to assess how short we are falling, and it compounds our de facto message to low-income students that their futures are not a priority. All of this is happening against a backdrop of massive cuts to funding for higher education that have beggared Arizona’s schools and community colleges.
Apart from the moral failure it represents, Arizona’s indifference to the financial needs of would-be college students from low-income families is tantamount to a millstone around the neck of our economy.
It has been widely reported that without significantly increasing college access, participation, and attainment among this demographic, we have no chance of meeting our statewide attainment goal of 60 percent by 2030, a goal informed by projected workforce needs in Arizona. Simply put, if Arizona is to remain competitive regionally and nationally, we need more low-income students to go to college and earn a certificate or degree, and we need to help them do this.
This imperative is not exclusive to Arizona. For states across the country, economic growth will not happen as we want it to if we do not increase college access and attainment—thereby building social and economic mobility—among low-income students.
For too long Arizona and other states have neglected this crucially important issue—both in the public conversation about higher education and in terms of effective policymaking. It is past time that we made increasing access to need-based financial aid for low-income students a statewide priority. Establishing a robust grant aid program, and fully funding it so that no eligible students are denied aid, is the key first step. This can and must be done, lest we forsake the future of the next generation.
Rich Nickel is the president and CEO of College Success Arizona, where he leads the organization toward its goal of assisting all Arizonans in gaining access to, and successfully attaining, a postsecondary credential.