June 14, 2015
Poor Students Need More Assistance from Policymakers
By Amanda Whalstedt
I understood early that as a kid growing up without a lot in Appalachia, doing well in school meant I was not always seen as a poor kid. So staying on top of my schoolwork has been my plan from the beginning, and that’s probably why my own father felt compelled to spell it out for me once: “We’re poor. You know that, right?”
My dad can be forgiven for trying to set me straight since when it comes to academic achievement and succeeding after high school, the statistics related to students with my background paint a stark picture. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, a distinct minority—only 21.3 percent of Appalachians over 25--hold a bachelor’s degree.
Even for high-achieving students who succeed in graduating high school and aspire to continue their education, great obstacles remain. Since 1998, tuition at public colleges and universities in Kentucky has more than tripled, and Kentucky community college tuition costs are the 11th highest in the nation.
Various scholarships cater to low-income Appalachians. These include: The Kentucky Coal County College Completion Scholarship for students from coal-producing counties to complete a bachelor’s degree, the federal Pell Grant, the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship, (KEES), which provides state money based on grades and ACT scores, the College Access Program (CAP) for students wishing to attend any type of postsecondary program, and the Kentucky Tuition Grant (KTG) for students wishing to attend a private college. But while there is some money out there to help make college more affordable for people like me, cultural and financial barriers remain.
Dr. Jim Ziliak, Director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research, described a common problem faced by students from lower-income families trying to understand how to pay for college. “There is a substantial mismatch between the knowledge of how you finance college and the eligibility for assistance,” he said. “This is a real problem because a lot of these kids could afford to go to college, they just don’t know it.”
Ashley Spalding, a policy expert at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, underscored the problem. “Two-thirds of students who qualify for the College Access Program do not receive it,” she told us.
Ms. Spalding went on to explain that in Kentucky, public, need-based financial aid programs like the CAP or KTG are underfunded and dispersed on a first-come, first-served basis while other publically funded “merit-aid” programs, based on things like GPA or ACT scores, do not follow the same restrictions. This dissemination policy fortifies the barriers to low-income students and means that we do not have the same financial support as our more affluent peers.
But there are at least a few proven solutions to making the process more equitable. Research shows that in Kentucky, access to services like intensive academic advising and career counseling raise completion rates and shorten the time students take to get a degree—approaches that help low-income students overcome both financial and cultural barriers to success after high school.
The fact that these very programs are often facing challenges in Frankfort is disheartening. As an informed, poor kid from Eastern Kentucky, I hope that our policymakers will understand that budget cuts make it difficult to afford intensive student supports.
Surely when it comes to ensuring a successful transition after high school, there is more we can do to support and encourage students with less in Kentucky.