Don’t squeeze out needy students

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The increase in income inequality and the diminished opportunities for advancement available to those born into modest means has become a top-tier topic of conversation in this country and elsewhere thanks to the pronouncements of Pope Francis and, belatedly, President Obama.

A story published in this newspaper Nov. 30, “Many public universities leaving low-income students behind,” illustrates how some Pennsylvania colleges and universities are failing to offer enough financial assistance to students who most need it and show the greatest potential of rising above the unlucky situations into which they were born. Thanks to the probing of The Chronicle of Higher Education and ProPublica, the nonprofit organization dedicated to investigative reporting, it paints a disheartening portrait of our public institutions of higher learning and the officials who lead them, many of whom have made national rankings and the bottom line a higher priority than offering a leg up to young scholars most in need of a boost.

The article focused on Shauniqua Epps, a high school high achiever doing all the right things to reach escape velocity from poverty. Her father died when Epps was in the third grade, her mother ekes out a living on a $698 monthly Social Security disability check and they live in subsidized housing in South Philadelphia. Nonetheless, Epps was able to attain a 3.8 grade-point average in high school, participate in sports and student government and become, as her guidance counselor wrote, “an unusual young lady” possessed of “drive and determination.”

Epps wanted to attend Lincoln University, the historically black university located near Philadelphia. She was able to line up federal and state grants, but the school itself offered not a dime of aid. Neither did two other colleges to which Epps was admitted. Because she was unable to scrape together enough funds to attend a four-year institution, Epps had to settle for the Community College of Philadelphia. While not a completely dire fate, few would dispute that Epps’ education and prospects would have been better served if she had been able to attend a full, four-year school.

Among the reasons Epps, and other students like her, are being given the cold shoulder by some colleges and universities when it comes to financial aid, the story revealed, is the schools would rather offer financial incentives for more well-heeled students to attend, particularly if those students are from out of state and will be paying higher tuition and arrive with high scores on standardized tests.

Basically, schools like Lincoln University would rather give $3,000 to four students who fit that profile than one student like Epps, even if those other students have no need for such aid.

Why are they doing this? “For some schools, they’re trying to climb to the top of the rankings,” Don Hossler, an education professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., told ProPublica. “For other schools, it’s more about revenue generation.”

In the 215 years since students were first admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s first public university, hundreds of other public universities and colleges have been chartered in all 50 states, ostensibly to give residents a chance to attain an affordable education and enhance each state’s economic prospects. The ideal of affordability has been eroded due to runaway tuition costs. Now, with these same institutions scrimping on aid to needy students, they are helping to further the divide between the rich and the poor.

“The most needy students are getting squeezed out,” one administrator said in the story.

It shouldn’t be this way.

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