Higher Education for Low Income Students

ASO Staff Writers
Updated October 25, 2022
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Opportunities & Resources

Low income students face unique financial challenges in college which can make higher education seem out of reach. However, many programs exist to help these students succeed and budget for their education. Learn how universities are supporting low income students and find out more about the opportunities available on- and off-campus.

The hourly pay discrepancy between those with a college degree and those with a high school diploma has steadily increased over the past 40 years.

From the Expert

Felice Rollins discusses the challenges faced and success achieved by low income students.

Getting to College Barriers Low-Income Students Face and Ways to Overcome

The benefits of attending college as a way to increase economic success are clear. However, hurdles still remain that make it difficult for lower-income individuals to get into college at all. Here are some of those issues, and how low-income students can overcome them.

Issue: Being prepared to take college entrance exams

Many students do not prepare ahead of time for the college entrance exams; this means lower scores on standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT which in turn makes it harder to get accepted into college. Even if accepted into college, a lower score decreases the chances of receiving merit-based financial aid.


One way to overcome this phenomenon is to make sure low income students take a recommended “core” curriculum which includes four years of English and three years of math, science and social studies. Lower income students are less likely than higher income students to take a “core” curriculum while in high school.

Issue: Getting extra academic help

College acceptance and merit-based student financial aid are substantially dependent on academic performance. Low-income students have increased the difficulty in getting this extra help. For example, receiving academic tutoring can help boost a student’s grades, but tutoring often costs money. Even if students can stay after school to receive extra help with their school work from teachers, there may be transportation issues.


Some solutions include providing academic resources to students to help them study on their own, such as free books or computer resources. If schools do not explicitly offer free help, students can still ask for it from their teachers and guidance counselors, who will more than likely be able to oblige.

Issue: Paying for college

The price of a four-year degree has steadily risen over recent years. For example, in Arizona, Washington State, and Georgia, the price of college has risen over 70% — in some cases, the costs are so high that college is priced out of range for even those from high-income families.


Some colleges are trying to alleviate this issue by offering free or reduced tuition, as well as capping the amount of loans students are required to take on. There are also need and merit-based scholarships to help pay for college. Students have the option of working while in college to help raise funds to pay for tuition.

Issue: Filling out financial aid paperwork

Filling out these documents can be a nightmare, especially forms like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). It can be so complex that there are actually fee-based services to assist in filling out and submitting the FAFSA®. Low income or not, many parents have so much difficulty with the FAFSA® that they do not complete it.


Students can request help with their FAFSA® and other forms by speaking with their school administration and guidance counselors. Students can also contact the financial aid offices of colleges they are interested in attending and ask any questions they may have or request assistance with that particular school’s financial aid portion of the college application.

Issue: Paying college application fees

This fee is usually $30 to $90 but can be more, depending on the school. When applying to several schools, these fees can really add up. Low-income students may not apply to certain schools (or as many) because of them. Whether low-income students or not, applying to several schools can add up to a semester’s worth of books.


Low income students have several ways around college application fees. Some colleges waive the application fee recommendation, make an in-person visit to the college, or have exceptional academic credentials. Many colleges also waive application fees to students who demonstrate financial need.

Issue: A difference in priorities

Even after accounting for student ability, many low-income students do not attend college compared to their higher income peers. Some students are simply not encouraged or pushed to attend college, and they are not surrounded by resources that make college applications a priority.


Figuring out the college application and enrollment process can be daunting, but as long as the student has the desire and will to attend, they can take the lead in the process. Talking to teachers, guidance counselors and other high school peers (who intend to enroll in college after graduating high school) can provide a lot of information and motivation to attend college.

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Staying in College Challenges & Barriers Low-Income Students May Face

Once a student does enter college, the lack of funds can mean problems that they didn’t expect. Here are some of the barriers that might lead to even the most dedicated student dropping out of college.

1. Day-to-day disruptions

For low-income students, small disruptions in life can have more serious consequences. For example, having a car break down can immediately derail college attendance. Even if the car repairs only cost a few hundred dollars, that economic hurdle can make it impossible for someone to finish their college education if they’re a few hundred dollars short to pay for books, tuition or rent.

2. Lack of childcare

Some non-traditional students have children to consider. The lack of childcare options can be a serious impediment to completing a degree, especially for students who take classes on campus and not online. Private daycare costs a significant amount of money, and most students can’t always expect to have a family member or friend to watch over their little one.

3. Increasing tuition costs

College tuition is rising dramatically in recent years, and financial aid packages aren’t always able to cover the increased costs. Again, just a few hundred dollars can make a difference; at some schools, a significant portion of students who drop out are less than $1,000 delinquent on their school tuition costs.

4. Being a first generation college student

About one in four first generation college students are low income, and almost 90% do not complete their college degree. One of the reasons for this is that first generation college students have to balance college and non-college life. Parents and family members who haven’t attended college are less likely to understand or be sympathetic to college related stresses or issues.

5. Financial aid obligations

Whether it’s maintaining a certain GPA or submitting updated financial information, many students receive less financial aid during their second, third of fourth years of college. Even when grades are maintained or documents submitted on time, any delay can drastically reduce a student’s financial aid package. Many schools have a limited amount of financial aid to give out to students, with a first-come-first-served policy. Students who submit financial aid information late may have little or no money available to them.

6. Pressure to succeed

Many low income students may feel a stronger than normal pressure to succeed in college. This pressure can stem from the student knowing they have to do well to get a high paying job to help support their family; the pressure of being the first in the family to graduate from college can also be quite strong.

7. Being mentally unprepared

While a student may have the ambition, they may not be prepared for the academic rigors of college. The state of unpreparedness can be caused by ineffective high school classes or a lack of guidance. Low-income students are also more likely to have to work while attending college. Being able to balance this third obligation (in addition to classwork and social life) can make succeeding in college more difficult.

8. Poor academic fit

Due to financial constraints, a low income student may know that they have to graduate in four years or less because they simply cannot afford to attend college any longer. They may also choose a major that gives them the best chance of landing a higher paying job after graduation. When these goals do not align with what the student really wants to do, it can lead to poorer academic performance, which in turn can increase the chances of dropping out.

10 Ways Colleges Can Ensure Success

The situation for low income students seems dire, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Colleges are stepping up to help low income students find the success they deserve in higher education.

Resources for Specific Low Income Challenges

Entering college can be intimidating for anyone. Low-income and other disadvantaged students often feel like they don’t belong in college, whether it’s academically or socially. Being overly self-conscious is compounded with the added stress and pressure of succeeding in school and being able to meet financial obligations. The below list of resources are tailored to low income college students.


Food and Living Essentials

Gaining a Source of Income While in College

Emergency Help & Support

Emotional Support for
Low Income & Struggling Students

Student Healthcare

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College Financing & Scholarships for Low Income Students

For low income students, paying for college is a major challenge. However, there are many financial aid options available to defray the expense. Below is a step-by-step checklist to obtaining college financing for college.1

Step 1

The first thing students should do is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which becomes available in October of each year. Even if students don’t plan on getting any federal student aid, many schools rely on the FAFSA® for financial aid determination of the scholarships it gives to its own students.

The FAFSA® can be complicated to fill out and students and their parents are bound to have questions. There is an abundance of advice on how to fill out the FAFSA®ways to avoid FAFSA® errors and expert answers to common FAFSA® questions.2

Step 2

Grants do not need to be repaid, so students should seek them out. The most common for low income students is the Pell Grant, which offers up to $5,775 to eligible students for the 2015-2016 academic year. Another is the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, which provides between $100 and $4,000 per year.

Unlike grants, loans need to repaid; however, they might make sense or some students. Examples of federal loans include the William D. Ford Federal Direct and Federal Perkins Loans, which have interest rates around 4-5 percent.

There’s also the Federal Work-Study Program, which provides part-time jobs to college students to help pay for tuition and related fees. There’s a limit on the number of hours a student can work. The federal government will pay for 50% of the student’s wage, with the school paying the other 50%.3

Step 3

After examining what federal financial aid options are available, students can explore their state financial aid options. Every state has its own set of rules and information needed for determination of financial eligibility, though most states require the FAFSA® to be completed in addition to any state specific application forms.4

Step 4

Explore private scholarship opportunities. There are literally thousands available, with many utilizing financial need as a major, if not primary determining factor as to who gets the scholarship. Some of these are listed in the next section.

Scholarships for Low Income Students

Aimco Cares Opportunity Scholarship

Sponsored by the National Leased Housing Association, the Aimco Cares Opportunity Scholarship is given to low income individuals who live in federally assisted rental housing and are pursuing an undergraduate degree. The award amount varies and the application deadline is December 1, 2015.

Children of Divorce Scholarship

The law firm of Ayo & Iken provides two students with $1,000 scholarship each for their first year of college. Applicants must be Florida high school seniors who come from a divided household due to divorce. The application deadline is May 1, 2016.

Crane Fund for Widows and Children

Run by the Crane Company, the Crane Fund for Widows and Children Scholarship gives $500 to $1,000 scholarship awards to undergraduate students whose husband or father cannot help with the student’s education as a result of disability or death. The application deadline varies.

I’m First!

Sponsored by the Center for Student Opportunity, this scholarship is awarded to up to 10 high school seniors who will be the first in their family to attend college. The award is $1,000 per year, but is renewable each year for a total of $4,000 in scholarship money over four years. The application deadline varies, but the process typically begins in January.

NEED Scholarship

The NEED Scholarship Fund provides between $1,000 to $3,500 to students who, after receiving other financial aid, are still a little short in paying for college. This scholarship supplements other financial aid awards and does not replace them. The application deadline is May 31.

Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Support Award

The Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Foundation offers five total awards to low income women who are mothers of minor children. Individual awards can amount to $5,000. The Application deadline varies, but the application process will reopen in April of 2016.

Ray Snader Scholarship

The Law office of Howard A. Snader, L.L.C. offers a $2,000 scholarship to students who need financial assistance to attend college, where the financial need is the result of one of the student’s parents being held in custody or incarcerated. Applications must be submitted by July 31, 2016.

The American Legion Legacy Scholarship

The American Legion awards annual scholarships (scholarship can be renewed) to children whose parent or parents died on or after September 11, 2011 while on active duty as a member of the United States Armed Forces. Award amount depends on the amount of income generated by the scholarship trust and students must use the scholarship award to pursue an undergraduate degree. The application deadline is April 15.

The Gates Millennium Scholars Program

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this program provides scholarships of varying amounts (the average award is about $12,500) to students who are low income, are of a racial minority and meet certain academic requirements. The application deadline is January 13, 2016.

Watson Brown Foundation Scholarship

Select students from Georgia and South Carolina who demonstrate financial need and academic merit are eligible for $3,000 and $5,000 renewable scholarships. Students must attend an accredited four year educational institution in the United States and submit application materials by February 15.

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