College try: Opportunity knocks for low-income students

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When college costs rise, everyone is hurt. But the bigger price tag takes a particular toll on students from low-income families.

For them it means more than digging deeper to pay for higher education. It can mean opportunity lost, once and for all.

The College Board reports that the average cost of a year’s tuition, housing and meals in 2013-14 is $18,393 per student at a public college or university and $40,924 at a private institution. No wonder college students these days graduate with an average debt of $29,400.

Despite the harrowing numbers, President Barack Obama and more than 140 colleges, universities, foundations and businesses are determined to broaden college access for low-income students and keep them on track to graduation. Last week the president applauded the efforts of those schools and organizations and challenged their peers across the country to emulate them.

The Post-Gazette’s Eleanor Chute reported that nine of the exemplary colleges and universities held up by the president are in Pennsylvania and are approaching the challenge in different ways — without new legislation or additional government spending.

Washington & Jefferson College, for instance, promises to meet the financial need of all students from seven surrounding counties who are eligible for state PHEAA grants and have a grade point average of at least 3.4. Carnegie Mellon University is stepping up its recruitment of low-income students and expanding support services so that they graduate at the same rate as other students.

Allegheny College will make endowed scholarships a major focus of a new capital campaign, while Bryn Mawr College for the next five years will enroll 10 students annually from under-represented groups who want to study math and science.

It’s not all about money either. The president was right to point out that many students from low-income families don’t get the push or preparation to aspire to college, unlike their peers from middle- to upper-middle-class families, which see higher education as mandatory. For that reason, stepped-up efforts by the College Board, the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for College Admission Counseling and other organizations are just as necessary as the schools’ initiatives.

Although not foolproof, a college degree is still one of the best bets for a young adult to attain steady employment, higher earning power and a life of greater knowledge and success. If more students can afford college, more Americans will be able to take advantage of the nation’s opportunities.

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