Some students are more equal than others

The Sequester’s dirty upside. 

For all the hubbub last year about the sequester’s detrimental cuts to education and particularly financial aid, surprisingly little is being said as the schoolyear approaches. Perhaps that’s because what sounded like horrible news for America’s college-bound youth turns out to be good news for the majority of them, at least when it comes to getting admitted to college in the first place.

Upper-middle income parents (you know yourself as ‘middle class’) needn’t worry about the cuts: Your kid will still be admitted to, and enroll in, the college of her dreams, because you’ll likely find a way to afford it even without as much financial aid. In fact, cutting programs that help low-income students prepare for and apply to college is actually a helpful blow to your daughter’s competition.

Because in the case of sequestration, with its so-called ‘equal cuts’ across the board, some students are more equal than others.

The cuts that kicked in this March as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011 will slash $3 billion from education programs across the country, but perhaps the most immediate toll will be on would-be college students who depend upon federal financial aid, major programs of which are slated for 8.2 percent cuts in Fiscal Year 2013, according to the Office of Management and Budget report. Students who depend on financial aid in order to attend college are, of course, disproportionately low-income.

The work-study program – in which qualifying students partially pay off their tuition, room and board by working their way through college – will serve 33,000 fewer students nationwide during the next academic year, according to the Department of Education. And 111,000 fewer exceptionally needy students will receive Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOGs). Without this assistance, many current college students may be forced or inclined to drop out of school altogether.

A $66 million cut to the federal TRIO program LINK means 61,000 fewer first-generation college students nationwide will receive pre-college counseling, tutoring and career advice next year. A $24 million cut to the Gear Up Program LINK will mean 57,000 fewer low-income elementary and high school students will go on college visits or receive early intervention services like tutoring, mentoring, or assistance in applying for financial aid in the first place.

The majority of students who will lose out on these grants, programs and services come from low-income families. In the 2007-2008 academic year, low-income students received 51 percent of all federal need-based aid; low-middle income students received 28 percent of the pie, high-middle 13 percent, and high income 8 percent. Nor will the cuts inflict damage equitably by race: In 2011, minority students at public colleges represented 37 percent of the total at public colleges, but received 52.4 percent of the need-based federal grant aid because they are more likely to qualify based on family income.

Already, furloughs and reductions have hurt would-be college goers: The time of year when students apply for financial aid has already past, and tens of thousands of them had fewer high school support staff, counselors, and Department of Education personnel hours to help them through the process.

Perhaps even more significant than the cuts themselves is how sequestration will discourage low-income students from applying to and enrolling in college in the first place. College admissions officers say they’d love to admit more low-income students – the problem is, to admit them, they need to apply.

Often these students are dissuaded by the “sticker price,” or the estimated total cost of attendance that they see when they research college. Half of students surveyed in a recent poll say they ruled out certain colleges altogether based on the sticker price. And students from low or middle-income families were more likely to do so than their high-income peers.

President Obama took a small step toward fixing that by approving the College Scorecard, a website that lists the average net price students end up paying to attend a particular school, rather than the sticker price. For example, the official estimated cost of attendance at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is $24,200 for in-state students. But after accounting for loans and grants, the average student pays just $6,591 up front, according to the Scorecard. (These are the average net prices — the Scorecard doesn’t offer students a way to estimate the amount they would pay individually based on their own estimated family contribution, which is how aid is actually determined and which varies drastically).

Now, as a result of the sequester, the real cost of attending college for low-income and even many middle-income students is about to increase measurably. Tens of thousands of qualified but low-income college hopefuls will go without college-prep counseling and assistance, making them even less likely or able to attend college at all. Even the ones who do apply and get accepted will be less likely to enroll due to the massive cuts to Work Study and other programs that make their education possible. That means more seats in the lecture hall for those who can afford to pay.

For more on how lower-income college applicants are dissuaded by the cost of attendance, read this New York Times article on an experiment that intends to get more low-income applicants to apply to top colleges.