Now's the Time to Invest in Students Who Seek Extra Funding to Pay for College

By Jay Mathews
Monday, August 10, 2009

Two weeks ago, I challenged Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco's claim that "a great many gifted and motivated young people are excluded from college for no other reason than their inability to pay." I had never found a student like that who couldn't get into college because of money, I said, and asked readers who disagreed with me to point out examples so I could write about them.

So far, it looks like I was right. No such cases have materialized. Even the most impoverished students who contacted me acknowledged that they had gotten into community colleges. Many experts endorsed my view that admission officers will do anything to find places for students that fit Delbanco's description because they add so much to their campuses and are so rare.

But that doesn't solve the real problem. As I said, the best of the impoverished students are not the issue. When Delbanco made his statement in the New York Review of Books, it would have been better if he had substituted the adjectives "capable and promising" for "gifted and motivated" and emphasized the problem of staying in college, rather than just getting in, for average students with unrealized potential.

College dreams rarely die in the exciting days of August and September when students sign up for courses. The bad news often comes in the spring, at the end of students' first or second year. Their scholarships expire. They get sick and can't work. Their parents lose their jobs. Their grandparents decide they can no longer co-sign loans. Any one of those personal crises is enough to leave an unpaid balance on their tuition bill, which means no more courses until they pay.

Valerie Ross, who lives in Gaithersburg, says her daughter worked hard her first year at George Mason University but still owes $5,700. Ross's financial situation is perilous, and she can't help. Raylene F. Ballard, who works in the District, says her son is in the same fix at Ball State University, despite his 3.8 grade-point average.

Some people blame the students and their families: They didn't save for college. They chose expensive four-year schools when community college classes were just as good for the first two years. They failed to research the college financing game, described in such books as "How to Pay For College Without Going Broke" by Reecy Aresty. Available money was left untouched. Lois Stoner, for example, says her small scholarship board in Montgomery County received only five applications this year for the dozen or so $500 to $1,000 grants it has available.

People who started school with me back when the most expensive annual tuition was $2,000 wonder what happened to working your way through. Shirley Manson of Annapolis says she had a friend who "had a full time job, took courses at night and earned her degree after 11 years of hard work."

Actually, even with tuition rates skyrocketing, many students are trying to do just that. Hannah Howard, 21, paid for all her tuition and books during two years of community college, but she says the cost of getting her bachelor's degree at a Maryland state college may be beyond her until she is old enough to get loans without a co-signer.

My e-mails reveal many people working their way through college who are illegal immigrants. Community and state colleges let them enroll as international students, but it is not that big of a favor. A Montgomery County high school student with a 3.9 grade-point average, calling herself Denisse G., says that under the international student label, she will have to pay out-of-state tuition in Maryland, increasing the chances that she will face an unpaid balance.

As a nation, we admire plucky students who deny themselves even little luxuries such as movies and restaurant meals so every spare dollar can go toward their tuition and who earn degrees after a decade or so working two or three jobs. Unfortunately, research shows they learn less that way and are more likely to drop out.

Karl Reid, a senior vice president at the United Negro College Fund, says students who have trouble paying for college approach their courses with less confidence and engage less with professors and out-of-class activities that often lead to satisfying careers.

Two weeks ago, I argued that blaming colleges for not admitting poor students overlooked the failure of high schools to get many low-income students ready for college, even if they could afford it. But, surprisingly, that is a problem that does not take much money to fix. Our most effective public high schools have shown they can raise achievement for impoverished students by changing faculty, student and parent attitudes about such students' chances, without adding much to their budgets.

Once those students get to college, getting through and earning a degree is a money issue. Many students with a will to study don't have a way to pay for it. To get out of our national education rut -- in which no more than a third of our population completes college even as new knowledge-based industries demand more -- we have to invest more dollars in those students.

Where will those funds come from? There are many possibilities. My generation, for instance, is beginning to reap the benefits of decades of building entitlements for the elderly. In many ways that is a good thing. But the young people trying to complete college, the ones who are going to be paying for our Social Security and Medicare, need some help. There should be some way for us to give it to them.


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