Poorer Families Opting Out of College Education Assistance

The more money a college-bound student's family makes, the more likely those students are to apply for federal financial aid, electronic records show.

It's a situation that some experts say is caused by families scared off by college costs, even as the federal financial aid application deadline passed Monday.

Even though college can come with a hefty price tag, families need to understand that they can pay less depending on how much they earn, said Ellen Frishberg, the director of student financial services at the Johns Hopkins University.

"A lot of people opt out of the process before they even get there," she said.

Dependent students in the lowest income bracket submitted fewer federal financial aid applications in 2003 than their wealthier counterparts at 26 out of 31 four-year schools in Maryland. At each higher income level, more students applied for assistance, according to data from The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), a research organization that studies higher education.

The dependent annual family income levels were divided into three groups: under $30,000, $30,000 to $60,000 and over $60,000.

Robert Shireman, the executive director for TICAS, said this data is limited in that it only shows the number of federal financial aid applicants.

But, he added that the federal numbers give a sense of the broader picture, as students typically must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in order to qualify for other need-based aid from states and colleges.

Also, the federal government is the largest provider of financial aid, Shireman said. For schools in the University System of Maryland, for example, a Board of Regents report notes that the federal government chipped in 61 percent of all financial aid in 2004.

While federal money often makes up the biggest portion of the Maryland financial aid pie chart, not all of the students who qualify for it apply.

"If you are the first person in your family to go to college, you are not necessarily as attuned to all of the ins and outs of the financial aid process," explained Clay Whitlow, the executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

Many low-income families get turned off by what Janice Doyle, the assistant secretary for finance policy at the Maryland Higher Education Commission, calls "the idea of cost."

Tuition and other fees have gone up faster than family income has, Doyle explained, and paying full price for school is out of the question for many families. Instead, they will go to less expensive community colleges, which they can afford without going through the aid process, or they do not go at all, she said.

"There is a persistent problem in our society where low-income students are less likely to graduate high school, less likely to attend college and are less likely to graduate college," Sandy Baum, a financial aid analyst for the College Board.

Although a number of factors contribute to a low-income student's decision not to attend college, affordability often tops the list, Doyle said. What these families do not understand, she said, is that financial aid can bring down those costs significantly.

"The process for financial aid is complicated. I know this stuff inside and out and it's still complicated," she said, but applying at the federal level is still a good first step.

There are many reasons why students opt out of even before this first step.

Some families dread filling out the FAFSA and have even compared it to doing their taxes again, said Baum.

Even families with more moderate incomes are not applying for aid, she said. Families tend to apply for financial aid more often at private schools, where tuition is higher, because they know they cannot pay out of pocket. But Baum explained that some of those same families could be eligible for aid at community colleges and public universities.

Many times though, a student will wait until school starts and their first bill comes in the mail before they begin looking for financing options. What they do not realize is that, Baum said, is that the May 1 deadline has already passed by that point.

Missing the federal deadline can keep students out of the running for other forms of aid. If a student does not get federal forms in on time, Frishberg said, Johns Hopkins, for example, is no longer committed to funding that student.

However, she said that, in her experience, it is not the first-generation college students that have difficulty navigating the financial aid system. They tend to ask more questions about the process, while many of the parents who have already gone to college have outdated notions about the process.

Asking questions, applying for financial aid options at every level and looking for outside scholarships can keep more options on the table when it comes to choosing a school, said Andrea Mansfield, the director of the office of student financial assistance at MHEC.

If students limit their choices prematurely, they can hurt themselves in the long run, Doyle explained.

"These students," she said, "get squeezed into an environment that may not be as conducive to their success."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.