College Dreams Deferred

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Despite increased efforts to make college more affordable and accessible, a new survey shows that a growing number of low-income high school students are postponing their plans for post-secondary education this fall - a decision that is likely to imperil their chances of getting a college degree.

Somewhat paradoxically, while increasing numbers of cash-strapped students are deciding that college can wait, cash-strapped colleges are telling students to wait, too, with a nearly 40 percent increase in the number of colleges putting students on waiting lists.

In between those two extremes is the fact that 70 percent more students than last year are passing up their "dream schools" and settling for more affordable options - a sign that today's tough economic times have made students and those paying for their education more shrewd and thrifty when it comes to post-secondary education.

These key findings are contained in the new survey recently released by the Arlington, Va.-based National Association of College Admission Counseling. Although the survey, titled Effects of the Economy on the Admission Process, 2008-2009, has limitations (for instance, it got a heavier response from private schools than it did from public schools) higher education policy experts said the survey's findings are still cause for concern and have not heard of any reports to refute them.

Darcie Harvey, policy analyst for the San Jose, Calif.-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said the most disturbing statistic in the survey is the one that low-income students are increasingly likely to postpone college. Specifically, the survey found that in high schools where more than one-fourth of the student population was eligible for free or reduced lunch, the number of students who delayed college increased two to three times as much as it did among those in more affluent schools.

"This is telling me that low-income students are disproportionately deciding not to go to college," Harvey said. "This is something for us to be concerned about."

It's Not Just the Money

The NACAC survey found that of the high schools that reported an increase in the number of students postponing college, only 15 percent of those high schools reported an increase in the number of students planning to delay post-secondary education for financial reasons.

The drop in the number of low-income students going to college this fall comes despite a series of steps by the Obama Administration to make college more accessible and affordable.

Pell Grants have been increased by 13 percent to $5,350 for the 2009-2010 school year. Incremental decreases in interest rates for student loans will kick in over the coming years. And, the federal financial aid form is being simplified, even allowing for a student's financial information to be retrieved electronically from income tax data on file with the IRS.

Richard Vedder, director of the D.C.-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity, said it's difficult to tell what actual college enrollment will be this fall, but the survey suggests it won't be as high as many would like.

"I don't think the administration's vision of the future of what ought to happen is being reflected in the behavior of students, at this point anyway," Vedder said. "What this data shows is it hasn't had a heck of a lot of influence."

Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, said that community colleges have actually seen 4 percent to 20 percent increases in enrollment in the last year. The survey found a 37 percent increase in the number of students planning to enroll in community colleges versus four-year colleges.

 "It doesn't mean community college is a bad choice," Harvey said. "It just means we're concerned that students are less likely to complete when they start out at a community college than when they start at a four-year school."

Kent, of the American Association of Community Colleges, said many students find that once they get to a community college, "they have a very rich experience."

The Waiting Game

The problem, however, is not everyone who wants to go to a community college can get in, particularly if they're hoping to enroll in nursing or one of the allied health professions.

The NACAC survey found that 40 percent of the colleges that use wait lists reported an increase in the percentage of applicants who were waitlisted.

"Many colleges simply won't be able to serve all those students who want to come," Kent said, citing state budget cuts as the reason.

Statistics also have shown that delaying college also tends to reduce a student's chances of earning a degree in six years.

Edie Irons, spokeswoman for the Berkeley, Calif.-based Institute for College Access and Success, said there needs to be a concerted effort to make sure students are aware of all the financial aid that is available for college

 "If I were talking to a student in that situation, I would want to make sure they really considered all of their options," Irons said, explaining that a college degree is increasingly serving as a "ticket to the middle class" for students of lesser means.

Low-income students delaying college is a concern especially to the National College Access Network, (NCAN) a D.C.-based organization whose mission is to improve access and success in post-secondary education for first-generation, underrepresented and low-income students.

Kim Kiely, executive director of NCAN, said many member organizations work to provide "last dollar" scholarships to help students close what is typically a $5,000 gap between what the student has and what the student needs for college, even after securing their financial aid packages.

However, as of late, Kiely said, many member organizations have only been able to offer $1,500 scholarships and have to search for other scholarships or funds to help students close the gap. "The tough thing is sustainability," Kiely said. "That's the major challenge for all of our programs. It's always a challenge."

It's important for guidance counselors and others to help encourage students to do what it takes to get into college, says Barb Pytel author of Best College for You: How to Find the Right Fit and Save Big Money.

"If kids don't have somebody to support them, they don't think they can make it," Pytel said.

Her advice to students is to start visiting colleges in their junior year and apply to four to six colleges in fall of their senior year.

"And then make the decision to attend or not attend when you have all of the financial aid offers on the table and you actually see what it would cost you," she said.

But not all of the burden should fall to students.

Jim Applegate, Senior Vice President for Program Development at the Lumina Foundation for Education, said policymakers need to reexamine how higher education is funded. For instance, he said, the foundation is advocating for higher education funding to be based more on the number of students who earn degrees instead of the number who simply enroll - something recently adopted in Indiana.

The reason, he said, is enrollment in college is not enough. Success is what matters.

"If you enroll students and give them access and allow them to dropout before  they get some kind of meaningful credential and degree that actually helps them in their lives" Applegate said, "what have you done except saddle them with debt?"