Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Barriers to Higher Education for Low-Income Students

Hilary Yancey


By Hilary Yancey

November 10, 2014


A college education provides a particular kind of benefit for low-income students. It’s an access point that doesn’t, at least on its face, require more than the hard work, grit, and intelligence to successfully enroll and persist. But only about one in ten people from low-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-five, compared with nearly half of people from middle-income families.

The introduction to a White House report on higher education and low-income students states, “The benefits of post-secondary education are well documented and have major implications for economic growth, equality, and social mobility. Getting a post-secondary credential leads to greater lifetime earnings, lower unemployment, and lower poverty. Over the course of one’s working lifetime, the median earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients are 65 percent higher than median earnings of high-school graduates.”

Post-secondary education for these students is intrinsically attainable. By its nature, education requires only that a student be equipped to do the work, not that they have an existing network of influential connections or significant material resources. Post-secondary education brings low-income students to a different horizon of opportunities. As the gap between a high school diploma and a college diploma widens, a college degree grows even more important for those students who otherwise don’t have access to those opportunities.

However, the cost of higher education has gone up dramatically, with many colleges’ annual overall cost over $50,000 this year and set to rise. And the college application process has a host of costs that don’t make the headlines and are real barriers to college access and matriculation. These costs are a significant reason that students from low-income families do not enroll in colleges where they could be successful and so contribute to the graduation gap between low- and high-income students.

This article will take a closer look at two small costs that create barriers to higher education for low-income students: undermatching and application fees.


Economists Caroline Hoxby (Stanford University) and Christopher Avery (Harvard), co-authors of a major study on college enrollment among low-income students, found that these students more often don’t apply to colleges that match their academic ability. The colleges might stand at the ready with financial aid and great academic resources, but the students don’t put in the applications. Only about 8 percent of high-achieving, low-income students are “achievement-typical” - meaning that they apply to and select schools that match their abilities. Roughly half of students from low-income backgrounds do not apply to a single more academically selective school that matched their abilities.

“So what is the reason these students don't apply?” queried a Stanford Report of Hoxby and Avery’s recent study. “Experts speculate that students are either poorly informed about their college choices or just did not want to attend selective colleges. For example, students might believe top colleges cost much more when they really cost less. Stanford's financial aid program, for example, covers tuition for undergraduates from households with incomes of $100,000 or less. Those with incomes below $60,000 pay no tuition, room or board.”

According to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, high school guidance counselors working with students from low-income schools have nearly twice the average number of students to see - about 1,000 students compared with a national average of 470. Getting information to students is vital if we hope to match them with colleges that fit their interests and abilities. Given how significant a well-matched college is for persistence, graduation, employment, and earnings, the seemingly small cost of students without information escalates into a significant barrier for true access.

One possible solution to getting students better information about their college choices, as well as assisting them with the application process, fee waivers, and other financial paperwork, would be to invest in the high school guidance counselors at these schools. Finding a way to support low-income schools in having a more robust guidance counselor program could ease the burden on existing counselors and give them the space and resources to better equip their students.

Application Fees

Cost is not just about the sticker price of the college; it’s about the application process itself. The costs during admissions processes can make students hesitate to apply to more schools. Hoxby and Avery’s research suggests that high-achieving, low-income students, especially those from more rural backgrounds, are deterred by application fees and paperwork. As the White House report summarizes, “Waiving fees and reducing additional paperwork have also been shown to encourage students to apply to more colleges. Jonathan Smith found that a 13 percent decrease in application costs induces students to apply to one more college, which in turn increases the probability of enrolling by 18 percent.”

In response to this, Reed College and a number of other colleges have eliminated their application fees. Reed’s president, John R. Kroger, described the college’s decision this way: “We have great financial aid, and we’re sort of worried that people will never figure that out.”

Perhaps it is worth thinking about eliminating the application fee entirely from all colleges. It is also worth looking more closely at recruitment tactics and investing in resources that would reach lower-income students better - a cost to be borne by colleges, not students. Hoxby and Avery found that investing in different marketing techniques and application processes increased college match by about 41 percent, with 19 percent more applications. While very few colleges will be able to tackle the student debt crisis on their own, many colleges could invest in resources to open their doors wider for low-income students.

But our concern about college access and college cost cannot just be because low-income students don’t tend to apply to selective colleges that would give them a leg up in the job market. It should be because the academic communities would be better for having them, having their perspective and insight, having their questions and curiosities. In addition to the financial security that can be gained from higher education, there is a great good to be gained from learning together, and no member of society should be cut off from that endeavor. Removing the barriers to access - from the smallest to the greatest - should be our priority because we need these voices at the table. And it shouldn’t be an application fee or a lack of information that keeps them away.

A version of this article first appeared on, an online journal of the Center for Public Justice dedicated to engaging young Christian thinkers in a conversation on what it means to do public justice. 

-  Hilary Yancey is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University, where she hopes to focus her studies on bioethics and the philosophy of the human person.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”