Removing Microbarriers for Students from Low-Income Backgrounds

By NACAC’s Inclusion, Access, and Success Committee

The rising demand for a college-educated workforce has led to an increase in the pursuit of postsecondary education. Yet, the achievement of this pursuit often poses a serious challenge for low-income students who are unable to contend with the many costs associated with college attendance. Students and parents must often grapple with the challenges that arise when making difficult financial decisions related to payment of the various fees and deposits that are required for matriculation.

In the May 2019 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018 published by the Fed, it was noted that if faced with an unexpected expense of $400, “27 percent [of adults] would borrow or sell something to pay for the expense, and 12 percent would not be able to cover the expense at all” (p. 2). Given what we know about the increasing cost of higher education and the many microbarriers that impede the ability of low-income students to pursue such opportunities, NACAC’s Inclusion, Access, and Success Committee (IAS) is ever faithful to its charge of supporting college access among underserved students.

Students from low-income families face many financial obstacles in the form of microbarriers in the college admission process. These include various fees for testing, applications, and sending scores, as well as housing and enrollment deposits. Microbarriers like these are just the start; many higher-income families can pay for test preparation, private counselors, visits to campuses, tutoring, and costly extra-curricular activities. While some of these fees - such as registration for standardized testing - may be waived for low-income applicants by the College Board and ACT, many may not qualify, falling just outside of the waiver threshold. Institutions are also reducing costs by accepting self-reported testing and employing innovative ways to waive application fees, such as for first-generation students or those working with college access organizations.

Still, there’s work to be done. Changes to the Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (CEPP) as a result of the Department of Justice investigation seem likely to result in increased enrollment deposits at many institutions. To that end, the IAS Committee requests that NACAC member institutions consider that such increases, particularly approaching this year’s May 1 National Candidates’ Response date, could exacerbate barriers for hundreds of thousands of low-income students.

NACAC is in the process of creating a document for students who have limited financial resources and for whom a deposit may create a significant hardship. We anticipate this document serving as a way to empower students who have great financial need to advocate for themselves in the admission process. NACAC understands institutions have various needs and challenges regarding enrollment deposit fees, so these concerns are being considered as well to create a resource that is beneficial to all stakeholders.

Today, many question the value of a college degree. We know that a degree is worth the investment and low-income students need help in reducing barriers to fulfill their dreams. Colleges publish first-year profiles to highlight the success of those who have chosen to attend.  Imagine the power of including the number of students who have made this same choice because a barrier has been removed.

In line with our vision to champion opportunity for ALL individuals to pursue higher education, we appreciate your partnership to promote access and equity by working to remove microbarriers for low-income students. If we can reduce such financial obstacles, then we can truly empower students for lives of personal achievement and contribution to the public good.

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