College is supposed to be a time to meet professors, delve into
favorite subjects, and explore ideas. For Portia Pedro, however,
student life is one long march to earn money to stay in school and
Most semesters, this fifth-year student at the University of
California at Los Angeles has taken three or four classes, while
also working 35 to 40 hours at two jobs, getting maybe 20 hours of
sleep a week. Despite her labors, she has $30,000 in student-loan
debt and doesn't want more. But Ms. Pedro - a first-generation
college student whose parents can't afford to help pay tuition or
expenses - soldiers on. Once a good student in high school, she
cares only about passing courses.
Sometimes Pedro wishes she could stop, work to lighten her debt
load, then return to classes. But she remembers friends who had the
"A lot of people I started school with have stopped attending and
aren't going to graduate just because of the money," she says. "Most
people talk about how hard it is to get into college. To me, the big
surprise was how hard it is to pay for school."
Pedro is surviving. But many low-income college students wash out
because of heavy money burdens - even at institutions with modest
With the recent passage of the "No Child Left Behind"
legislation, Americans are again expanding efforts to graduate
students well-prepared for college. But meanwhile, access to college
for students from low- and-median-income families is a growing
question mark, according to a controversial new study released last
For every Portia Pedro struggling to graduate, many other
students with similar backgrounds will find it difficult or
impossible to afford a four-year college or university - depending
on where in the country they live. That's according to "Unequal
Opportunity: Disparities in College Access Among the 50 states," by
the Lumina Foundation for Education. The report examines two-year
colleges as well.
"Geography matters," says Derek Price, co-author of the report
and director of higher education research at Lumina, a higher-
education research think tank in Indianapolis. "Different states
provide different levels of access to higher education."
What's unusual about the report is that states and schools are
rated and ranked on their level of "accessibility" based on two
factors: affordability and admissibility, a measure of the extent to
which institutions in each state admit average college-bound
students from within that state.
Even at public colleges and universities, the report finds, most
low-income students, whether they are dependents or on their own,
must borrow money more often than their median-income peers. A few
of the report findings:
* In 22 states, at least twice as many loan-free options were
available to median-income students as compared with lower-income
* In 33 states, less than half of all public and private
institutions are accessible to independent low-income students.
* In 16 states, more than a quarter of public institutions were
determined to be inaccessible to traditional low- and median-income
students who live at home.
California, for instance, ranked among the best states in terms
of offering broadly affordable access to college. Ninety percent of
public institutions were rated "accessible" to low-income students.
Yet a number of popular big-name four-year schools in the state,
like UCLA, are rated "unaffordable" for low-income students.
It doesn't carry Ivy League-style sticker shock. Yet Pedro says
UCLA's cost of about $1,300 for tuition per term - about $3,900 a
year not including board, books, or fees - is too much for many.
It's almost more than Pedro can bear, and definitely more than
several of her friends could afford, even with easy access to loans,
Thomas Mortenson, a higher-education policy analyst at the Center
for the Study of Opportunity and Higher Education in Washington, say
it's high time a report identified specific states and institutions
based on college accessibility to low-income students. …