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Spring/Summer 2004

Volume 33
Numbers 3-4

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National Initiative [Printer Friendly]

Low-Income Women and the Higher Education Act Reauthorization
By M. Lynsey Morris
American Association of University Women (AAUW)

While there is little upon which politicians can agree, most members of Congress have argued that the key to a successful economy is a trained workforce capable of filling high-skill, high-wage jobs. President Bush has acknowledged that the jobs of tomorrow demand an increasingly skilled and educated workforce, and that this sophisticated workforce is the key to our ability to be competitive in the 21st Century. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 42 percent of all new jobs created by 2010 will require postsecondary education, as opposed to just 29 percent of all jobs in 2000. As a result, lawmakers are looking for legislative opportunities to serve the demand for education and skills training.

One possibility is the Higher Education Act, set to be reauthorized next year. This bill represents the federal government's contribution to colleges and universities, as well as federal student aid programs. Reauthorizing this bill could offer an opportunity for it to serve as an engine for workforce training and productivity. The increased demand for highly skilled workers can mean exciting opportunities for low-income women who are looking for ways to find a career--not just a job.

Unfortunately, many women find that access to such an education is completely out of reach. While women may not necessarily have greater financial need than men (although data on pay equity and the wage gap indicate that women do indeed tend to have fewer income-related resources), they are more likely to have extra expenses and demands on their time.

Students who face additional challenges are called "nontraditional" students because they do not fit the traditional college model of being 18 to 22 years old, receiving financial assistance from their parents, and being able to enroll in school full time. Nontraditional students may be older, parenting, or financially independent students. Because of these additional barriers, nontraditional students may not have the luxury of taking four years away from employment while they attend school full time. While initial enrollment in college may be a possibility, they have a host of other responsibilities taxing their time and financial resources while in school, lowering the likelihood that they will stay enrolled and will graduate. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, class schedules, number of classes, and class choices are limited for more than two thirds of nontraditional students. [Note 1]

As a result, many nontraditional female students only take classes one at a time. And yet the current federal financial aid system--primarily grounded in Pell grants and federal student loans--essentially requires students to be enrolled at least six credit hours or full time (at least 12 credit hours). The formula used to calculate how much grant money students can receive is based on unrealistic expectations of what they should be able to contribute. For example, nontraditional students aren't allowed to consider living expenses--for themselves or their dependents--as part of the cost of attending school.

Even if women qualify for financial aid, this aid does not always cover the expenses for which they are responsible, making it impossible to enroll in school. Pell grants, established by Congress in 1973, were created to serve as the foundation for all student aid. Initially, the maximum Pell grant award covered 84 percent of the costs of attendance at a four-year public college. However, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy and Scholarship America, as college costs rose and federal commitment to funding Pell grants failed to rise in proportion, the maximum Pell award in the mid-1990's only covered about 34 percent of the cost of attendance. [Note 2]

As Pell grants and other need-based grants have lost value over the years, students are turning more and more to loans in order to finance college costs. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study show students currently graduate from college with an average of over $18,000 in student loan debt, and this number will only increase if Pell grant awards do not increase with the rising cost of higher education. [Note 3] Student loan debt has become a real problem for many adults, but loan repayment is an even more significant burden for women due to the wage gap. Women tend to earn less on average over the course of their lives than their male counterparts. The College Board reports median annual earnings in 2001 for full-time workers with a bachelor's degree were $53,108 for men and $39,818 for women. [Note 4] Derek V. Price suggests that since women are more likely to borrow than men and they will make less on average after graduation, female graduates are more likely to struggle with their loan debt. [Note 5]

As Congress debates the issue of student loans and increasing student debt next year, we will see a great deal of debate on consolidation loan interest rate structure. Several key members of Congress support changing the interest rate structure so students would be subjected to a variable interest rate rather than the current system where students can lock in a low, fixed rate. This proposed change could be detrimental to women, as it does not take in to consideration that the predictability of a monthly payment is particularly important to women who often depend on fixed incomes and may have less money with which to make ends meet. As a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report documents, students with a current student loan debt of $17,000 could save $5484 in interest over the next 15 years of debt repayment with a locked-in interest rate.

When reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, it is important that Congress recognize that the stereotype of the average college student is outdated, and so are our higher education policies. Higher education legislation needs to address the needs of an ever-changing student body, the majority of whom are female. It also must meet the unique needs of nontraditional female students. To accomplish both goals, several policy options need to be considered, including:

  • Make sure that financial aid--in the form of loans AND grants--are available to all students who demonstrate financial need, even if they can only enroll in classes one at a time.
  • Allow students to lock in low, fixed interest rates on their loans so they can make predictable and manageable budget decisions.
  • Allow financially independent students and those who have children or other dependents to factor in ALL of their actual expenses when deciding how much aid they need to complete school.
  • Make campuses more child-friendly. Expand and fully fund existing programs that encourage colleges and universities to offer on-site daycare for parenting students. Keep daycare centers open at night, when working students tend to take classes. (See Data Connection in this issue for more on childcare).
  • Encourage colleges and universities to include more night and weekend classes in their course rotations so nontraditional students can meet all of their requirements. Expand distance course opportunities and online classes for students who cannot be physically present in a classroom.

Improving higher education access for low-income women is a priority of the National Initiative for Women in Higher Education. NIWHE is an organization of women that organizes to promote women's leadership and make institutions more inclusive. It is also a means of following this issue and learning how to organize with your campus to ensure reforms are passed nationally that open more doors for low-income women.


1.Choy, Susan, Nontraditional Undergraduates, NCES 2002-012 (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2002).
2. Institute for Higher Education Policy and Scholarship America, Investing in America's Future: Why Student Aid Pays Off for Society and Individuals (Washington, DC: IHEP, 2004).
3.Andrew G. Malizio, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: Student Financial Aid Estimates for 1999-2000, NCES 2001-2090 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2001).
4.College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2003 (Washington, DC: College Board, 2003).
5. Price, Derek V., Borrowing Inequality: Race, Class, and Student Loans (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2004).


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