Low-Income Women and the Higher Education
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
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
1.Choy, Susan, Nontraditional Undergraduates, NCES 2002-012
(Washington, DC: US Department of Education, National Center for Education
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).