THE BLOG
01/08/2015 11:13 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

'Nontraditional' But Increasingly Common Barriers to Higher Education

At the heart of this country's vast income inequality -- an issue which has at last been gaining the urgent attention it deserves -- is a growing educational divide. A college degree is the ticket to employment and better quality of life, yet it is more than ever unattainable for those who need it most: the growing number of low-income, first-generation college-going, adult, and immigrant populations; college students who until recently were referred to as "nontraditional".

The Institute for Higher Education Policy recently released a documentary entitled "Degrees of Hope: Redefining Access for the 21st Century Student," which highlights the struggles of five such students. Each student in the video exemplifies one or more of the common barriers encountered by a growing majority:

• Sharon, the daughter of a single mom and the first in her family to attend college, worked throughout high school, and had to choose between supporting her family or enrolling in college.

• Traval, a community college student whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Ghana, didn't even apply for financial aid because he thought it all would have to be paid back. His full-time job interfered with his coursework, and he is now facing problems transferring his community college credits to a nursing program at a four-year university.

• Andrea, a working adult student with a family, delayed enrollment in college for a number of years because her guidance counselor in high school told her she wasn't "college material." She had to resort to food stamps to support her family because a scholarship she received required full-time attendance, which necessitated quitting her job and losing her benefits.

• Donald, a veteran whose education was disrupted by multiple deployments, faced physical, emotional, and financial challenges upon his return. After 9 years he is close to finishing -- but has now been deployed a third time.

• Jenell, an online student who delayed college for nearly a decade due to concerns about cost, faced the hurdle of passing remedial math courses -- more than 10 years after taking algebra in high school.

One thing that struck me is that all of these students are bright and motivated. The problem is not that they haven't worked hard enough to earn a college degree; rather, structural barriers have prevented them from obtaining the information and guidance needed to navigate higher education and financial aid systems.

Many of us assume that college is a given after high school. We were lucky to have had the support systems needed to help us prepare, apply for, and enroll in college. Students whose families have both college experience and the means to afford and navigate the college application process can get by being average. But for students such as those in the film who face a growing reality of daunting financial hurdles, they must either be extremely determined and hardworking to the point of forgoing sleep (often working to support a family while also studying for school -- never mind a social life or extracurricular activities), or they must be simply lucky.

This growing majority of students has essentially been penalized because their families or their schools were unable to provide the same encouragement and direction that more privileged students have access to.

Low-income students also lack adequate information about the financial support that they so badly need. Traval's parents discouraged him from applying for financial aid because they thought that all federal aid came in the form of loans that had to be paid back. They told him, "it's a trap." It wasn't until he was in college that Traval learned he could get federal aid in the form of grants or scholarships. His parents' skepticism of government aid is not uncommon. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be daunting for anyone, and it is not only prospective students but their parents who need to be educated about the college application and financial aid application process.

Sharon, on the other hand, was lucky to have had the support of school and college guidance counselors, who encouraged her and helped her navigate the application for a full scholarship that enabled her to attend college. It is the human touch that can make all the difference in guiding students and families through the process. And sometimes students luck out by stumbling upon the supportive individuals who act as their champions and steer them in the right direction.

In fact, college access support programs are widely available and should be made widely known. Federally-funded college access programs such as TRIO (Talent Search, Upward Bound, Educational Opportunity Centers) as well as local college access programs (many of which are members of the National College Access Network) are available through schools and community centers nationwide to offer such support. It is important that disadvantaged and underrepresented 21st century students be aware of these resources and take advantage of the invaluable services they offer.

The cycle of poverty is nearly impossible to escape. It takes not only being incredibly determined and driven, but also making sacrifices, both financially and personally, to make ends meet. Those of us who work in higher education policy are well aware of these struggles that low-income, first-generation, 21st century students face. We also know what works - it's not rocket science. Providing information and support to the students who need it most can help them overcome barriers.

I hope lawmakers and the general public beyond the higher education community will have the opportunity to view this video so they can understand what it would take to get to the root of the income inequality epidemic. It shouldn't be such a gamble or such an exception to become college educated; but until it becomes easier for low-income individuals to obtain college degrees, fixing income inequality will remain a dream.