Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Finding Money on the Table: Information, Financial Aid, and Access to College

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Finding Money on the Table: Information, Financial Aid, and Access to College

Article excerpt


Recent research suggests that low-income high school students do not prepare for college because they believe a post-secondary education is expensive and unaffordable (Grodsky & Jones, 2004; Luna De La Rosa, 2006; Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, 2005; Tierney & Venegas, 2007).Corresponding research has documented how financial aid shifted during the last generation from grants to loans and from income-based scholarships to merit aid (Baum, 2006; Dowd & Coury, 2006; Doyle, 2005; Heller, 1999). These studies conclude that more financial aid should be awarded to the most economically disadvantaged. A variety of programs, such as the privately funded "I Have a Dream" (IHAD) and the publicly funded Indiana's Twenty-first Century Scholars, have developed what is now known as "early commitment" aid. If a student meets the program's requirements and achieves its academic standards, then the student receives a college scholarship. Several state programs promise similar assistance through merit or entitlement grants. Private and state programs also commit to providing aid, assuring that students who receive the highest levels of aid are the most academically prepared. There is a difference, however, in the type of support services these programs offer in terms of: (a) helping students understand how to navigate the financial aid application process, and (b) preparing them academically to be eligible for participation in these special programs.

We do not quarrel with the assumption that increasing financial aid would boost college going. Yet a conundrum exists. Some state agencies have the potential to provide more resources than what college-bound students request. The federal government also has an excess of money in various aid programs (King, 2006). Of course, we do not ignore the reality that is does not make sense to allot more money than might be needed--budget surpluses are as unwelcome as budget deficits (St. John & Byce, 1982). However, the possibility that students who are truly qualified for aid but do not receive it, set off alarms that precipitate further inquiry (Advisory Committee for Student Financial Assistance, 2002, 2003; U.S. Department of Education, 2006). Not only are there students who miss out on higher levels of financial aid because they are not adequately academically prepared, but there are also those who are eligible and who qualify for aid but do not apply for it. At a time when most scholars advise that postsecondary education is necessary for gainful employment, why are academically qualified low-income students not drawing on available funds for a college education?

To help answer this question and inform the discussion about financial aid we offer here an additional framework for consideration--what we call the "cultural ecological model." The cultural ecological model builds upon what is known about how students make (or do not make) the decision to go to college. In this case, the model focuses on financial aid access and the contexts that affect aid availability. Our work, like the work of many of others (Perna, 2007; St. John, 2003, 2005, 2006, forthcoming; Tierney & Venegas, forthcoming; Wooden, forthcoming) suggest that there are multiple environmental influences that play a role in access to financial aid. We posit that the ideas that flow from such a model may help to increase college going. We first offer an overview of the literature and discuss the theoretical framework driving the research. Then we delineate financial aid programs in three states with different types of funding programs--California, Nevada, and Kansas--to demonstrate that students and families lack information about how much college costs and how to access aid for college.

One of our main concerns is that student decision-making patterns are not linear. While much of the early commitment literature works from a rational choice framework, students do not. The underlying assumptions of rational choice do not entirely explain why teenagers who are college eligible do not apply for college and/or financial aid. Instead, we posit a cultural ecological framework for examining how students think about going to and paying for college. We suggest that information and preparation for college and financial aid are multifaceted and longitudinal and have the potential to play critical roles in increasing access to postsecondary education.

Early Commitment and Access

Twenty years ago, Leslie and Brinkman found that as tuition increases "one would expect an 18-24 year old participation rate drop of about three-quarters of a percentage point" (1987, p. 188). As Donald Heller noted in 1997, "Leslie and Brinkman's meta-analysis was an important contribution to the literature. It confirmed the findings of early analyses performed by Jackson and Weathersby (1975) and McPherson (1978)" (p. 627). Researchers have conducted similar studies (e.g. Heller, 1997; Kane, 1995; St. John, 1990) that are more focused on one particular aspect, such as price sensitivity to community college tuition, but most authors have confirmed Leslie and Brinkman's broad finding: as tuition goes up, enrollment goes down (Dowd & Coury, 2006; Gladieux, 2004; McPherson & Schapiro, 1991; Millett & McKenzie, 1996).

Just as Leslie and Brinkman conducted a review of the literature and, based on their analyses, found that "student aid, at least in the form of grants, does increase the enrollment of low-income individuals" (1988, p. 154), more recent related studies have investigated the relationship between student financial aid and college enrollment and have largely concluded that an increase in aid boosts enrollment (Bishop, 1998; St. John, 2006). For example, Susan Dynarski (2000) looked at Georgia's HOPE Scholarships and deduced that attendance rose with every $1,000 of aid provided. She stated in a different article, "The merit programs [in seven states] increase the attendance probability of college-age youth by five to seven percentage points" (2002, p. 1). St. John et al. summarized, "There is a great deal of evidence that need-based grants are not adequate in most states. ... Having stable financial support that is inadequate does not motivate low-income students to graduate from high school if they think they can not afford to attend college" (2004, p. 834). Seftor and Turner (2002) studied older adults and suggested that Pell grants improved access. As Dynarski summed up, "Estimates that do and do not account for unobservable differences across individuals reach similar conclusions: a $1,000 drop in schooling costs increases college attendance by 3 to 4 percentage points" (2003, p. 286). Heller also recapitulated, "The evidence is clear that both tuition prices and financial aid awards affect access to public higher education" (1997, p. 638).

A belief about how high school students think about college underlies these studies. As Dynarski explains:

  A rich array of individual and institutional decisions could
  potentially be impacted by the presence of a merit aid program. On
  the individual level, consider the many types of high school students,
  and how each might respond to the offer of a merit scholarship. One
  youth may not plan to attend college at all; the offer of merit aid
  may convince her to try college. Another may be certain he is going
  to college, but the offer of merit aid may lead him to choose a
  four-year college over a two-year college. (2002, p. 3)

Consequently, such optimism has created early commitment financial aid programs. As Ann Coles and Sandy Baum show, "Too many qualified low-income students do not go to college because they believe they cannot afford to, even though they may be eligible for sufficient financial aid" (2005, p. 7). "Early commitment" suggests that economically disadvantaged students in middle and high schools receive a guarantee of financial aid if they meet particular requirements. Not only does such a program remove financial aid roadblocks for low-income youth, it also provides an incentive for students to do well in school in order to receive cash for college. Moreover, it encourages the type of academic preparation that will allow students to remain academically eligible for college as they proceed toward their high school diplomas. At the state level, Georgia's HOPE Scholarships and Indiana's Twenty-first Century Scholars are examples of early commitment programs. I Have a Dream (IHAD) and the Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) are similar programs funded by donors and foundations. As with virtually all college preparation programs, data on the success of early commitment programs is by and large absent. As Coles and Baum note. "Foundations also have funded limited research to assess the effectiveness of early commitment programs. Much more research is needed in order to fully understand the conditions under which these programs can have the greatest impact" (2005, p. 7). Curiously, the research has claimed that early commitment is important for students' motivation, but the development of programs based on those claims has not been evaluated in a thorough and systematic manner.

One relatively new program that has been assessed is Indiana's Twenty-first Century Scholars Program. The program selects seventh and eighth graders who qualify for free or reduced price lunches. The students must pledge to graduate from an Indiana high school, maintain a GPA of 2.0, not use drugs or commit crimes, and apply to a postsecondary institution in Indiana. In return, the state will pay full tuition at any public postsecondary institution in Indiana (or a portion of the costs for a private institution). Over 25,000 students have completed the program. In a research study that evaluated the program, St. John concluded that "receiving grant aid had a substantial influence on enrollment, indicating adequate aid is an important aspect of a comprehensive postsecondary encouragement program" (2004, p. 829). The authors pointed out that the study was preliminary and lacked a comparison group with which to gauge the Twenty-first Century Scholars. They also indicated that the selection of the Scholars could be biased, but nevertheless, they determined that "students who took the 'Scholars Pledge' were more likely to apply" (2004, p. 855). Subsequent work raises questions about completion rates of those who start the program as Scholars and how they perform once they enter college (St. John, et al., 2005), but the program in general has served as a model for other early commitment programs.

A similar program that has garnered notoriety is Georgia's HOPE Scholarship Program, which began in 1993. Between 1993 and 2001, about 625,000 students received support through HOPE Scholarships (Cornwell & Mustard, 2002). One significant difference is that the program is open to all income levels and offers the promise of a scholarship for college if the student meets requirements akin to what is required in Indiana. In addition, students may receive grants to study non-degree programs at two-year schools and related institutions. Since 1996, the scholarship has also been available to students attending private institutions in Georgia. Bugler and Henry concluded, "Available data suggests that more low-income students are attempting to go to college in Georgia" (1998, p. 2).

One interesting conclusion by Cornwell and Mustard is that "the scholarship program appears to have had a substantially greater influence on college choice than on college access for blacks" (2002, p. 65). In other words, African Americans were more likely to plan to attend four-year institutions and private colleges because of the scholarships. Financial aid affected where students went to college rather than increased college access. There are additional questions about the scholarships: Do they help to diversify the best institutions in Georgia? Who carries the burden for funding the scholarship program (Cornwell & Mustard, 2002)? Do these programs cause colleges to raise prices (Long, 2002)? The general agreement is that HOPE Scholarships have increased access, however modestly, for low-income youth.

Understanding Early Commitment Programs Using a Rational Choice Framework

On a broad level, financial aid and access are self-evident issues. Given the cost of going to college, if there were no aid, then low-income youth would not be able to attend. The question is not whether there should be financial aid for college. Instead, several other questions follow: how much should the aid be, what form should it take (i.e. grants, loans), who should provide it, and when should aid information be given? Such questions are critical for policymakers and have significant implications with regard to public policy. A movement away from grants to loans, for example, increases the debt burden for students and makes students less willing to go to college (Burdman, 2005; Caliber Associates, 2003).

The preponderance of research works from a rational choice model based on economic analyses because the primary consumers of the scholarly literature about financial aid are policy-makers rather than students and their families who are affected by aid. We find it disconcerting that virtually all of the research has neglected to speak with, interview, reflect on, or otherwise address the assumptions, beliefs, and concerns of low-income students. In part, this pattern is a theoretical choice. In this study, we shall work from a cultural one.

An overview of rational choice theory. Although our purpose is not to provide an exegesis on competing theoretical models, we delineate the distinctions between the most commonly employed framework--rational choice--and our proposed one--an interpretive, or cultural, approach. The majority of studies about financial aid and early commitment programs utilize a rational choice framework that assumes consumer reactions to market demands. A great deal of social science research has operated from a rational choice perspective, where the individual who exists within a social structure as the unit of analysis. Rational choice theorists assert that an individual makes a subjective assumption about what happens (Dunn, 1988; Hardin, 1993; Morse, 1999) and has logical incentives to fulfill those actions. By navigating a series of complex social expectations, individuals make choices and decisions.

James Coleman, a leading proponent of rational choice theory, says that "social interdependence and systemic functioning arise from the fact that actors have interests in events that are fully or partially under the control of others" (1990, p. 300). While his assessment of the nature of social relations extends beyond the idea that society consists of a set of individuals who act independently from one another, Coleman and other rational choice theorists (Putnam, 1995) assume that conditions can be replicated irrespective of the context and the individual.

A logical circularity exists in the rational choice approach; the theory justifies rather than explains the existing social order. The wealthy act in a rational manner that enables them to send their children to good schools, where the children in turn develop relationships that encourages them to study hard and get into top colleges. In turn, these students will create more trusting relationships and secure lucrative jobs that will enable them to finance their future children's educations thus repeating the pattern. Filing for financial aid is a logical action. The poor act in a different manner, and the consequence is self-evident: they remain poor.

Rational choice is more an explanation of the status quo rather than an examination of organizational or societal power, structures, and functions. Nevertheless, the rational choice framework has led to useful analyses. Rational choice theorists were reacting against an overly individualistic or psychological view of life. Although we disagree with the premise that individuals need to subjugate their views to current structures for successful relations to exist, we recognize that a focus on societal structure effectively shifts the paradigm away from a strictly psychological view of the individual. Rational choice usefully points out that individuals are embedded in structure. How those structures function is critical to understanding how individuals make choices about, for example, whether to apply for financial aid. Proponents of rational choice are often criticized because their view of the world in which structures are viewed as static. Their interpretation does not question the individual's role. Does the individual shape the structures in which she or he resides, or is the individual simply a passive observer who reacts to societal forces?

Rational choice pertains as much to ideological views of the world as to an individual's ability to create change in his or her life and to work within an organization. Rational choice theorists implicitly presuppose that a structure exists, but they do not offer an explicit analysis of the overriding ideological view of the world framed within it. By analyzing the social networks of individuals within a structure, a researcher might understand how a phenomenon--such as, school failure--functions. A rational choice reading will focus more on how to fix the student; structure is not seen to be part of the problem. A researcher who takes structure into account investigates the networks in which a family is embedded and explores how they might be changed in order to improve a student's academic performance. In this perspective, a structure is neutral, not a powerful force that reinforces ideological hegemony. Unsuccessful individuals can change by altering their views of the world and trying to fit within the overarching structure. In other words, success results when perspectives synchronize with the structures in which individuals reside.

The majority of the literature assumes that students/consumers function in a linear mode. Some time in junior high or high school, and generally through indirect means, students learn that college is expensive. As rational consumers, they know they cannot afford college. So they opt out by not taking the courses and/or entrance exams required for college admission or consider the possibility of going to college. Research on college choice for traditionally aged students also supports the notion that students may take a non-linear path to college. The work of Hossler, Braxton, and Coopersmith (1989) and others (Hossler, Schmit, & Vesper, 1999; Tierney & Hagedorn, 2002) also highlight the notion that the pathway to college choice may be filled with a variety of inputs and outcomes that may be unique to the individual and can not be explained by a rationally based cost benefit analysis. St. John, Paulsen, and Carter's (2005) study emphasize the role of race and ethnicity as a complicating factor related to college choice. Similar studies have been made with relation to social class and its affect on the choices that students make about postsecondary education (McDonough, 1997). Social context and access to resources shape the decision making processes in ways that may belie the possibility of fully informed decision making. The same claim can be made related to college going. Research has shown that most low-income youth radically overestimate the costs of college (Luna De La Rosa, 2007; Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, 2002). From a rational choice framework, such overestimations are irrelevant. We will suggest, however, that assumptions are relevant because student actions will follow from their unfounded assumptions about the cost of attending college.

Such an argument leads to a demand for more financial aid and widespread early commitment programs. If one believes in a rational choice framework and the findings of the research listed in our review, then a demand to increase financial aid and early commitment programs is warranted. A heated argument has ensued between researchers who support the ideas presented here and those who claim that academic preparation is equivalent to, or even supersedes, the importance of financial aid. St. John specifies how "Tierney and Hagedorn, like many advocates of postsecondary encouragement, do not consider the adequacy of student grants" (2004, p. 834) in a study that focused on academic preparation. The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance similarly commented about the recent work of Clifford Adelman, "Financial aid is known to be an important factor in student behavior," and pointed out that the fact that Adelman overlooked this factor was a serious oversight (2006, p. 2).

To allay critical dissension, St. John calls for "balanced access" (2004, p. 834). This model suggests that two types of access, financial and academic, need to be considered to boost college going and conceptualizes a multitude of factors a researcher should consider when studying how low-income students make college choices. St. John situates financial aid and college going within a broader context. One would be hard-pressed to argue against the variables listed by his study--family income, academic preparation, students' expectations, among others--affecting student decisions about whether to apply for financial aid and/or academically prepare to attend college. Together, these elements help to explain the myriad inputs that affect college going as an outcome. In many ways, the cultural ecological approach is an extension of the balanced access model. The cultural ecological model places a stronger emphasis on the context in which the factors that St. John has identified and continued to refine (2003; 2005).

Perna (2007) has also proposed a conceptual model for studying college access and financial aid, which also moves beyond a rational human capital investment model. After outlining that individuals make the best decisions possible based on available information. Perna offers a multi-contextual approach for college choice that includes social, economic, and policy contexts; a higher education context; a school and community context; and a "habitus" context that is meant to capture individual characteristics. This conceptual model effectively explains the many possible inputs that affect college choice. The model also extends St. John (2003; 2005) by accounting for the larger policy context and calling for more information about the student. Most scholars would agree with these well-crafted models and conclusions. Although these concepts actively describe the factors affecting student thinking about post-secondary education, they have changed the underlying premises of the intellectual framework of college choice and financial aid access very little. The commitment of financial aid is still foundational to college going and rational choice. Access to financial aid, like access to college is may also be very contextually driven--the cultural ecological model provides the opportunity to uncover these particular influences. Whether fully informed or conditionally informed, this commitment still drives the framework.

Low-income and first-generation students enter junior high and high school without knowing much about college and are in schools with historically low college-going rates (Gladieux, 2004; Grodsky & Jones, 2005). As financial aid processes move toward Internet based forms, this student population also experiences increased challenges in completing the financial aid process (Venegas, 2007). Broadly stated, the assumption here is that early commitment is the switch that enables students to turn on the academic valves. A student can take the right courses, prepare for exams, apply to college, etc. Thus a significant solution to the challenge of access is to increase financial aid and, by junior high, give students early commitments of financial aid and guidance in taking college preparation courses.

An intellectual puzzle still exists. If assumptions about students and their families making the best possible decisions based on available information are correct, then why do monies that are available for college remain unspent from year to year? Why do students who are eligible for financial aid not apply to college? Why do those students who have been admitted to college not apply for financial aid? According to a rational choice framework, two scenarios are possible: (a) the student knows that aid exists, academically prepares for college, and applies for aid even if the specific amount or type of aid is not known or (b) the student knows that aid exists but chooses not to prepare for college or apply for aid. In the following section, we consider how financial aid is distributed in three states to delineate how these decisions might be made.

Managing State Aid: The Cases of California, Nevada, and Kansas

A report by the American Council on Education noted that between 2000 and 2004 "the number of low and moderate-income undergraduates who did not file a FAFSA, and therefore may have missed the opportunity to receive federal, state, and institutional aid to help pay for college rose from 1.7 million to 1.8 million" (King, 2006, p. 1). Twenty percent of the dependent lowest-income students and thirty percent of the independent lowest-income students did not file for aid. The conclusion of the report was that "a substantial and rising number of students are missing out on needed assistance. More outreach is needed to inform low and moderate-income students about the availability of financial aid and the application process" (2006, p. 1). The implication of this report differs from the research reviewed in the previous section of the study. The reports shows that even among those students who make it to a post-secondary institution, there are gaps that persist in access to financial aid. While this writing focuses on financial aid access pre-college, we wish to acknowledge that the problem persists beyond entry to college. At a federal level, low-income students could have applied for aid but the report suggests that informational tools to access the aid were unavailable. In some ways, federal aid, such as the Pell Grant and subsidized Stafford Loan programs might be considered similar to entitlement aid. If the student completes his or her financial forms on time and shows appropriate need, the money should be available to them. These missed opportunities are the kind that could be identified when applying a cultural ecological approach to research in this area.

This finding parallels Pamela Burdman's observation that "greater awareness of financial options corresponds with college access and success" (2005, p. 10). On the one hand, it is assumed that a commitment to aid will increase access to college, but because fiscal resources do not exist, students do not prepare and/or apply for college and financial aid. On the other hand, there is the assertion that resources are available on the federal level but are not being tapped. The logical conclusion is that better informational strategies should be developed rather than an increase in fiscal resources. Insofar as financial aid is not solely within the purview of federal largesse but also the state, what might be found with regard to aid in three states with different population sizes, philosophies, and stances toward higher education? A few statistics (National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs, 2006) provide context and frame the importance of state aid in enabling students to go to college:

* In 2004-2005, states awarded approximately $7.9 billion dollars in student aid--an increase of about 6% from the 2003-2004 academic year.

* The majority of state aid is distributed as grants, and about 74% of aid is a combination of merit and need-based aid. 27% is merit-based only.

* 44 states reported some type of need-based aid program.

There are three states discussed in this paper--California, Kansas, and Nevada. In the 2004-2005 academic year, California provided more than $150 million dollars in grant aid, Kansas allotted between $10 million and $25 million, while Nevada had less than $10 million (NASS-GAP, 2006). These funding amounts are driven not only by the population of each state, but also by the types of programs they offer, which students are awarded aid, and how much those students receive in grant aid.

The California Context. California offers a state aid program that has been refined and reorganized to serve students as they attain various academic or vocational credentials. Broadly speaking, Cal Grants are considered entitlement grants available to all legal California residents, who have a grade point average of 2.0 or better. To be eligible as a graduating senior, a student must complete a grade point average verification form and the Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) (Cal Grant Entitlement Programs, 2004). For the purpose of discussion, we focus on Cal Grant A, which is the most fully funded grant program for students with plans to attend a four-year public or private institution within the state. To receive Cal Grant A funding, an applicant must: (a) have a grade point average of at least 3.0 (most students with awards typically have GPAs well above that minimum), (b) complete the FAFSA form and be eligible for federal support, (c) attend a four-year institution in California, and (d) be a low-income student. Students who meet these requirements are in a strong financial aid position. For example, in 2005-2006, students who received a full Cal Grant A were awarded $9706, which covered the costs of tuition at a four-year public in-state university. These students were also eligible for a federal Pell Grant, meaning that additional funding for housing, transportation, and other costs of living were available. This financial aid package combining Cal Grant A and a federal Pell Grant sounds good for the students who were awarded it. Yet how many students within the state are actually eligible for this type of aid package, and how many make use of it?

In 2002-2003, California provided about $544 million dollars in grant aid (NASSGAP, 2006). 18,373 of those awards were given to first time college students. It is worth noting that included in these initial awardees are those who later chose to attend community college but had met Cal Grant A academic requirements. During that same year, 341,290 students graduated from high school in California (California Department of Education, 2005). There were 114,517 completing the requirements for admission to a four-year institution, meaning about 33% of the 2003 graduating class were eligible for Cal Grant A. However, only 15% of eligible students actually claimed their aid awards.

Students also may qualify for other types of grants. The ability to receive a different level of Cal Grant funding is related to the type of institution that a student is academically eligible and chooses to attend. For example, assume a student is accepted to a University of California institution and receives over $9000 in Cal Grant A. If the student chooses to attend a California community college his or her award will be reduced and may no longer cover all of the costs of attendance at the community college. College hopefuls do not understand the sliding scale of family contribution and costs of college. A student may believe that the Cal Grant A will cover the costs of community college and then some, not realizing that a $9000 Cal Grant A award is unavailable to community college students. There are other forms of Cal Grant aid available to this student, but many students are not always able to understand these differences (De La Rosa, 2006). Another common issue is the lack of clarity about what a student must do to meet the criteria for Cal Grant A. Students are told to apply for admission to either a University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) institution to meet A-G requirements, but it is not as clearly known that the grades earned in those courses must be at least a B+, and the student must have the GPA required to benefit from the Cal Grant A Program. Unlike the UC or CSU application, the Cal Grant application does not detail academic requirements as specifically.

A recent review of program participation found that up to 42,000 students who were eligible for state financial aid did not complete the financial aid process and missed out on receiving state aid in the 2005-2006 academic school year (Costopolous, D., personal communication, May 31, 2006). The research shows a disconnection between a student's financial need and his or her understanding of what to do to access aid. By considering the number of students who graduate from high school in California but who lack the minimum courses for admission to a four-year institution, one conclusion is that academic preparation is not part of the financial aid message.

Perhaps students do not understand which courses to take, or they may not realize how different courses affect the school that they may attend and the amount of their aid awards. Maybe the students are not being tracked into college-going courses. Another unknown factor is whether students are aware of the requirement of a 2.0 or 3.0 grade point average. California is an entitlement aid state as defined by its own legislation. The more students are successful in maintaining eligibility and completing the financial aid process, the more money is brought to the state's financial aid table. California does not lack aid for qualifying students nor does it seek to hold more aid available than needed. To do so would indicate a poor budget model (St. John & Byce, 1982). It might also be expected that at some future date if there were a massive influx of students who qualified for aid that required significant new amounts of state support the state might rethink the nature of aid, but that is not the case today, and has not been for the last several years. Instead, the state's problem lies in inadequate academic preparation and unsuccessful informational strategies about available aid.

One immediate issue to be resolved is clarifying to students that the courses that they select affect both college eligibility and opportunities for state financial aid. This important point related to both our discussion of a balanced access (St. John, 2003) and a cultural ecological approach as detailed in this work. Adequate academic preparation and economic access are necessary for low-income students to gain meaningful and sustainable success in postsecondary education. How does this work in a state that links academic expectations to financial aid opportunities? The following discussion of the Kansas State Scholars program helps to illuminate this picture.

The Kansas Context. Although a number of need-based state grant programs exist in Kansas, the Kansas State Scholars Program is the most academically competitive award for the state (Kansas State Board of Regents, 2006). Like the California merit program, Kansas State Scholars was developed in the early 1960s with the goal of providing monetary assistance for financially needy and academically outstanding students attending in-state postsecondary institutions (Kansas State Board of Regents, 2006). Students are selected based on (a) ACT (American College Test) scores, (b) completion of a state board of regents' recommended curriculum, (c) cumulative grade point average, and (d) financial need. Because financial need is part of the program's criteria, an evaluation of parental income, assets, and family responsibilities are also taken into account. Recipients are awarded $1,000 to attend a four-year public institution in Kansas and qualify for additional aid. This program is not an entitlement program, and there are varying academic eligibility cut-offs from year to year. This can create a challenge for students who may hope to be eligible for the funding but can not meet the evolving minimum academic requirements for GPA and ACT. The best students, as determined by GPA and ACT, from each year's graduating pool receive the awards. What counts as the "best" may change from year to year as might the number of applicants. Nevertheless, potential scholars do not tap all of the allocated funds.

In 2003-2004, Kansas provided about $15.9 million dollars in grant aid (NASSGAP, 2006). About $1 million was devoted to the Kansas State Scholars Program and given to either new or continuing award recipients (Kansas Board of Regents, 2005), and the rest was allocated to a variety of need-based grants and scholarships. In 2003, the Kansas State Scholars Program's selection pool included 6,225 nominees, who had an average ACT score of 24 and an average grade point average of 3.65. From this pool, 1860 scholars were then chosen to received student aid. This cohort had an average ACT score of 29 and an average GPA of 3.9. Obviously, this is a very competitive group of students. How do the other students, those who are not at the very top of the graduating class, fare in comparison? Before we address this question, we must make an important point. In a letter sent to school counselors, the director of student financial assistance for the state board of regents announced that there was no guarantee that all eligible needy students would be funded (Lindeman, 2003). So again, what happens to students who are not part of this program? Like California, Kansas also has a number of other scholarships. There are some, for example, for students who are interested in careers in nursing or teaching. Like the Kansas State Scholars Program, these grants are quite competitive and serve only a small number of students. There is also a large-scale program of comprehensive grants, which funded 2,563 students in 2003. These grants are based primarily on merit and are given much smaller award amounts.

In 2003-2004, 31,725 students graduated from Kansas public high schools (Kansas State Department of Education, 2006). About 20% of the high school graduates, or 6,225 students, had completed the requirements to be considered for the Kansas State Scholars Program. Of those 6,225 students, only 1860, or about 5%, of the total number of students who graduated from high school in 2003-2004 received aid from the program. Less than 30% of those students who qualified for aid, received full awards. The recipients were in need of funding and, as shown by their ACT scores and grade point averages, were among the most prepared students. Overall, less than a quarter completed the requirements to be considered part of the Kansas State Scholars nominee pool. Some students applied for comprehensive grants. Yet with a consistent graduation rate of over 88 percent, more than 2,563 students should be receiving aid for postsecondary education.

Because Kansas's financial aid programs are legislated, one possibility is that additional money would be brought to the state's financial aid table if more students were successful in maintaining eligibility and completing the financial aid application. To be sure, policy contexts are not causally related like an if-then statement of certainty. However, as we have shown in some years, excess aid existed because not all potential students used it. Unlike California, the link between a college prep curriculum and receiving aid to cover full tuition costs has been in place for decades. Yet the message linking academic preparation with financial aid continues to be missing. In the next example of a state aid program, we describe the challenges and opportunities facing one that is much newer and considerably smaller in terms of the number of students who are served.

The Nevada Context. Though Nevada's Millennium Scholars Program is one of the younger state merit programs, it is already following a

path similar to its predecessors. The program began in 1999 and experienced rapid growth as more students learned about the scholarship. When the program was first implemented, its eligibility requirements were: (a) Nevada residency, (b) acceptance to a postsecondary institution within the state of Nevada, and (c) a 2.0 minimum GPA. For a merit-based program, these requirements are not as rigorous as might be expected. Qualifying students did not need to meet an income threshold or enroll in a stipulated curriculum. They were not even required to submit a financial aid application. The eligibility reporting system was designed and organized such that school registrars would pass on student names and grade point averages to the state treasurer's office. Potential Millennium Scholars are sent notices that money is set aside for them to attend an approved two- or four-year institution. Nevada created this program to be the only aid program in the state, hoping that it would single-handedly address brain drain and provide opportunities for underrepresented groups of students, such as low-income students, to participate in post-secondary education. These are two important issues for a state like Nevada that historically has lacked a highly educated workforce. The Millennium Scholars Program offers 80 percent tuition to students attending a public two or four-year institution full time.

In the last five years, the state of Nevada has increased the amount of aid offerings by 88% (NASSGAP, 2006). As expected, more than 80% of full-time college students attending a public institution received financial aid by 2002-2003. This represents a 30% increase in the number of awards offered in 1998-1999 (State of Nevada, 2005). How well does this new program work in meeting the financial aid needs of college bound students? Increased requirements for program eligibility have changed levels of participation. These changes in eligibility are related to academic performance in high school and once enrolled in college. For example, the Millennium scholars program now requires high school students to complete a particular set of college preparation courses, much like California's A-G requirements. In 2003-2004, 15,152 students graduated from a Nevada high school (Nevada State Department of Education, 2006). Of those students, 4,680, or 33% of the graduating high school class, utilized the Millennium Scholarship to attend a postsecondary institution in Nevada. The majority of graduating seniors however, 6,179, or 43% of students, had not completed the courses to enable them to qualify for this aid. Close to half of graduating high school seniors were not included in the state financial aid pool.

These levels of participation are relatively good. A 43% rate of aid and access is a great improvement for a state that was recently ranked in the bottom five in the 2004 Measuring Up report (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2004). However, continuing changes to the program will certainly create shifts. In 2003, 2004, and 2005, the Millennium Scholarship increased its grade point average requirements for receiving an aid award and maintaining it while a student is in college (Nevada State Treasurer's Office, 2006). Accessing accurate information about current requirements is difficult. Only a visit to the state treasurer's website or a well-trained school counselor can give the most up-to-date results. For students and parents who do not have access to the Internet or do not read English, understanding this information poses a challenge. Even for those who do have Internet access and read English, difficulties may be encountered when planning and targeting a particular offer of aid because the requirements shift on a yearly basis.

Again, a comparison of the number of students who receive aid versus those who do not, and matching that lack of participation with frequently changing eligibility requirements suggests a disconnect between students' financial needs and their understanding of what to do to access aid. Over 40% of high school students have neglected or been otherwise unable to complete the course curriculum to qualify for the scholarship. Even though students do not have to apply for this grant, 24% of eligible students did not utilize the award. Some of these students may have chosen to go out-of-state, while others opted not to engage in any form of postsecondary education. It is unclear whether these two pools--those students who are not academically eligible and those who are not taking advantage of the program--are receiving the information they need to make informed decisions about their college-going careers.

Insofar as Nevada's Millennium Scholars Program is based on entitlement legislation it is entirely possible that more money might be brought to the state's financial aid table if more students were successful in maintaining eligibility and completing the financial aid application process. However, the purpose here is not to forecast what a state's legislators might or might not do if more students applied to college and were eligible for financial aid. Rather, the simple point is that in three very different states insufficient financial aid is not the only, or in at least California's case, the major problem. A lack of information and action related to adequate academic preparation is.

In at least three disparate states, the challenge has more to do with the manner in which students and their families find out about financial aid, how they prepare and apply for it, and subsequently, whether they are able to receive it. Such an assertion suggests that a cultural framework may serve as an additional way to analyze the challenge of financial aid access instead of a strict adherence to rational choice models that test consumer preferences. We therefore turn to the lineaments of a cultural framework and then conclude by exploring the possible implications for those who adopt it.

Understanding Financial Aid Using a Cultural Framework

These three state cases indicate that David Brooks' recent comment that "this country has oceans of financial aid sloshing around" (2005, p. 37) is incorrect. His assertion seems to suggest that financial aid is not an issue. Instead, part of the problem is that not enough students and their families believe that aid will be available them. Therefore, too few apply. States that do not have entitlement commitments, such as the states we have discussed, might be hard-pressed to follow their peer states and increase their aid offerings, but that is a hypothetical question, which is not based on evidence. We also are not suggesting that the states discussed here might change their policies if they receive a massive influx from potential students. However, at this point in time, the problem seems to be centered on students and families lack of information rather than a lack of aid.

We support calls for moving away from loans to grants, and we encourage increases to federal and state monies whenever possible. We would also like to suggest that financial aid's immediate relationship to academic preparation is not obvious in the minds of those who need aid the most. Students and their families do not think in a linear fashion like a rational choice consumer who gains one piece of information and then decides whether to make a purchase. Student decision-making is much more protean and complex than what rational choice theorists assume. A multitude of factors affect college choice. In many respects, what St. John (2004) and Perna (2007) delineated in their college access and choice models is akin to what we propose, but rather than a causal chart where one factor leads to another, we suggest a cultural framework to better understand how students and their families approach college going.

An overview of a cultural framework. As an alternative, a cultural framework conceives of organizations and groups as social entities that individuals construct and reconstruct. A cultural view of financial aid compels researchers to analyze structures and their social contexts and histories. Contextualized, meaning is therefore understood from both an individualistic standpoint and a comprehensive one that interprets how actors define the individual and how that individual acts/reacts within the organization (Seligman, 1997). From this vantage point, one comprehends the social bonds and shared identities that enable action. The focus is on the internal dynamics within an organization as well as on the social forces that shape it. Feelings of a shared identity and interpersonal connections need not be forced to fit an impersonal and impervious structure. Instead there is broad leeway for interpreting and reinterpreting these forces, as individuals enter and exit the organization and relate to it differently over time.

For example, a low-income student may choose to make varying decisions about this kind of information that he or she perceives is available from a variety of sources--that is if he or she knows that they exist and has prepared to become a recipient of an aid award. Low-income students often experience educational environments in which there is a lack of informed resources (Author, 2005, Wooden, forthcoming), especially in comparison to their more affluent peers (McDonough, 1997). The state level cases provided here suggest that there is a disconnect between what students may believe that are eligible to receive in financial aid and whether or not they are adequately informed or prepared on how to access it. The cultural ecological model suggests the analysis of multiple forms of information to understand the social contexts in which information and preparation related to financial aid may occur. Figure 1 provides a visual representation of a cultural framework for financial aid decision making.


Within a cultural framework, individuals become social decision makers instead of individual pawns within a rigid structure. Whereas a rational choice framework seeks to understand how individuals might align themselves to the structure, a cultural view enables the researcher to see the organization--in this case, presumably a school--in much more fluid terms. Organizations simply do not bend one way or another but have ideological parameters framed in part by the larger social structure. A high school, for example, is not simply an avenue for upward mobility for whomever desires it, but rather a filter that promotes some and excludes others. Testing is not only a process that measures knowledge about a particular subject; it also maintains the social order for those who have access to what Pierre Bourdieu called "cultural capital." The challenge for the researcher lies not in figuring out how to align individuals with predetermined social structures, but rather in figuring out how relationships that build commonalities across differences might be developed in order to promote agency within individuals. In this situation, increased agency on behalf of students, their families, and schooling environments would empower state services to seek more aid.

From a rational choice perspective, a student who has been admitted to a college and knows he or she needs financial aid but does not apply for it, most likely has acted irrationally. The challenge is that low-income first generation youth frequently do not have the cultural and social capital to understand what is required to acquire economic wealth. They interpret daily life in a manner quite different from their wealthy counterparts. Financial aid is but one of many actions that they must confront, and the benefit of aid frequently appears indirect or even counter to other parts of their social well-being. The challenge from a cultural framework is how to provide information effectively in order to enable these students to act in ways that will benefit their long-term interests. The many rules that shape who is eligible and how the eligible receive state aid further complicate this already complex situation. Even in states such as Nevada, that offer a broadly defined merit aid program, shifting policies make getting the "right" word out hard to do and are potentially difficult for students and parents to interpret.

A cultural framework assumes that the individual decision-maker has agency with regard to whether he or she attends college. It also puts forward that decisions are reached and implemented in dialogue with a multitude of social actors--families, teachers, peers, and counselors, among others. The model suggests that decision-making is a non-recursive process rather than linear and recursive. Finally, a cultural framework provides a balance between identifying critical factors in the decision-making process and including a variety of possible influences. It may seem that a key distinction between a rational choice approach and a cultural approach might preclude the use of one inquiry mode over another. However, a cultural framework lends itself to a mixed method approach. It would be possible to identify quantitative and qualitative measures. Indeed, quantitative data related to the out of school environment or other larger social forces would provide a stronger context to understand the rich qualitative data that could be gathered when using this approach. Additionally, the use of a mixed method, multi-layered technique would help to identify differences between student and parent pathways, if they did exist.

Implications for Practice

Just as a rational choice framework moves scholars and policy makers toward particular methodologies and policies, so too does a cultural framework point researchers in a specific direction. Three points are of particular importance with regard to financial aid and access:

Understand the lives of students and families. A cultural framework assumes that if policies are to be developed that will positively affect the lives of students and their families, then researchers must come to terms with those lives. Sophisticated surveys and elegant analyses are unquestionably useful for understanding part of a problem, but a cultural perspective suggests that time should be spent with students and their families. Instead of a survey, interviews, ethnographies, cultural biographies, and a host of other qualitative methodologies offer a researcher a more full-bodied way to understand the meanings of individuals' words and actions. A qualitative methodology looks for cross currents and relationships among issues, such as access to college and adequate academic preparation, as opposed to a rational choice framework that largely views issues from a linear perspective. The point, of course, is not to abandon the analyses of those who have done their work without ever speaking to those under study, but instead to expand the range of research methodologies to learn more about the challenges of financial aid and access. Such research provides the opportunity to focus on the specific choices that affect the college preparation and financial aid application process.

Investigate the inter-relationship of issues. As noted earlier, we think that St. John's "balanced access" model proceeds in the right direction. However, instead of assuming financial aid as foundational, a cultural model argues that individuals, especially adolescents, experience multiple inputs when thinking about a particular topic. Simple explanations of causality, by and large, do not exist in a cultural framework. Low-income youth have multiple messages that they receive about college, even if those inputs are nonexistent or negative. In other words, the wealthy never really decide whether to go to college based on fiscal issues. Attending college is assumed. Broadly stated, wealthy students at a private school do not choose a college curriculum, do not have to decide whether to take the PSAT and SAT, and do not take courses where there is a shortage of books and qualified teachers. High schools in upper middle class areas are vehicles for college preparation, and students do not have to consider whether college is unaffordable.

Low-income high schools experience the opposite situation. Going to college for first generation students who are from low-income backgrounds is an active choice that necessitates a myriad of inter-related decisions and actions--one of which is financial aid. Far too often, these students never decide whether to attend college. By not taking the right courses, preparing for exams, among other critical steps, they have passively opted out of the college track. Learning how students interpret all of these messages and how these multiple decisions and actions relate to one another is a key challenge for researchers who will employ a cultural framework.

Create a systemic and longitudinal framework for information about financial aid. Applying for financial aid is made up of a multitude of activities that take place over a long period of time. What a student should know in the ninth grade is different in the twelfth grade. The needs of an undocumented student are different than those who qualify for financial aid, and foster care youth have issues irrelevant to youth raised in families. Because applying for aid is confusing, in that it involves a series of activities that take place over several years, students need adults to guide them through the process step by step.

The point here is that a cultural framework assumes that the various contexts in which students find themselves will have a direct impact on how they receive, interpret, and act on messages about financial aid. If financial aid access is to be improved, then messages must be crafted with their audience in mind. Researchers and policy analysts should recognize the intensity of interactions that need to occur. The point is not that vast amounts of financial aid are "sloshing around," to use David Brooks' phrase, which would refute the valid concerns of the rational choice proponents (2005). From a cultural perspective, the issues necessitate a fine-grained sense of how individuals interpret phenomena and developing materials about financial aid that are accurate, culturally aware, and user-friendly. If students receive better information in a timeframe that allows them to prepare academically and have the requisite support to act on that information, then access to a postsecondary education is likely to rise for low-income youth.


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We appreciate the feedback and advice of Despina Costopoulos, Diane Lindeman, Mario Martinez, Laura Perna, Kaye Stewart, Susan Twombly, Sharon Wurm, and the three reviewers for The Journal of Higher Education.

William G. Tierney is University Professor and Director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California. Kristan Venegas is an Assistant Professor and Research Associate in the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California.

The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 80, No. 4 (July/August 2009) Copyright[C]2009 by The Ohio State University

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