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Richard Doty

Edward St. John
IU Education Policy Center

Last modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2002

IU study says federal research overlooks financial role in college access

    U.S. Department of Education research has overlooked the key role of finances, in particular the role of need-based student aid, when analyzing the causes of disparity in college access. This action -- which can be corrected largely through more funding of Pell Grants -- has left more than a million college-qualified, low-income and minority students behind in the 1990s.

    This was reported today (May 29) in a policy study from the Indiana Education Policy Center at the Indiana University School of Education. Edward St. John, IU professor of higher education and director of the center, headed the research team that prepared the report.

    The IU findings, titled "The Access Challenge: Rethinking the Causes of the New Inequality," are available at under "On-Line Publications" and "Policy Issue Reports."

    "Since 1980, the gap in college participation rates between low-income students and upper-income students, and between minorities and whites, has widened substantially," St. John said. "This indicates a new inequality in college access. However, during this period, research at the National Center for Education Statistics has focused primarily on the impact of academic preparation on access to higher education. It has overlooked the impact of constant-dollar reductions in federal need-based grants on college-qualified high school graduates and the widening gap in post-secondary opportunity."

    St. John said NCES based its analysis on an academic model of access. "They used only such academic factors as aspirations, preparation and entrance exams. They excluded the considerable impact of finances -- particularly the shortage of grant aid -- on those factors as well as on college enrollment and persistence. Thus NCES incorrectly found access to be equal and financial aid to be adequate," he explained.

    According to St. John, NCES's purely academic model of access "completely missed the fact that more than one million high school graduates, who were college-qualified according to NCES, were denied financial access in the 1990s."

    In contrast, St. John used a "balanced model" that considered both academic and financial factors to re-examine the NCES analysis of enrollment behavior by college-qualified students in the high school class of 1992, which St. John said was the last year for which such data were available. "When the roles of academic preparation and finances are both considered, NCES data reveal access to be very unequal and financial aid to be very inadequate," he said.

    "While there is still a need for improvement in high schools, many school systems have become much better at preparing high school graduates for college," St. John said. This progress is reflected in a 12 percent increase in the college participation rate for all high school graduates between 1980 and 1999, according to the paper. "Unfortunately, low-income students have not benefited from school improvement to the same extent as upper- and middle-income children. The shortage of grant aid -- and resulting work and loan burdens to pay college expenses -- is simply shutting the door for too many minorities and underprivileged students. It's a travesty that so many children from poor families who took the steps to qualify for college have not been able to attend," he said.

    St. John said the federally-supported Pell Grants hold the key to addressing this new access challenge. "Restoring these federal need-based grants to their 1980 level is a necessary first step toward equalizing the opportunity to attain higher education for college-qualified high school graduates," he said. The Pell Grant, the primary federal need-based student grant program, was created to equalize post-secondary opportunity. A chart in the IU report shows that the net cost after the Pell Grant maximum for these students to attend college rose from $2,472 in 1980 to $5,034 in 2001 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). St. John said this is too large a burden for low-income families earning less than $25,000 a year.

    "The erosion of the purchasing power of Pell Grants has been the primary cause of the growing opportunity gap. A re-investment in Pell Grants is essential for reducing this gap, along with better financial strategies in most states. If Pell Grants are restored to their 1980 level, and if states make an adequate investment in need-based grants to equalize opportunity to enroll, then there is a greater chance of restoring equal opportunity to a level that existed in the 1970s," the report concluded.

    For more details on the report, contact St. John at 812-855-1240 or