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Tips for Disadvantaged Students to Cover College Costs

Tips for Disadvantaged Students to Cover College Costs

Low-income and underrepresented students experience the hardest setbacks when it comes to affording a bachelor’s degree. Here are 13 ways that these students can make it to the finish line.

1. Apply for Financial Aid

There is a strong connection between applying for financial aid, enrolling and ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree. But millions of families who would qualify for financial aid never file the documents.

About 2 million would have received a Pell Grant and 1.3 million of them would have qualified for the maximum Pell Grant. In addition, many parents fail to finish the application. If you have trouble completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), contact the FAFSA hotline at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).

2. File Early

Parents can file the FAFSA starting October 1 of each year. It’s important to file early to capture any money that students qualify for, especially for low-income students. If you don’t start early, you might miss the ability to get the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), which can run out on some campuses.

Students with extreme financial need who qualify for the Pell Grant are eligible for the FSEOG. In addition, some state aid programs and college aid programs run out of money and operate on a first-come, first served basis.

3. Be a Full-Time Student

If at all possible, attend school full time. Your chances of graduating will increase. In fact, a new study says the chances of earning a bachelor’s degree increases significantly if you take 15 credit hours.

EAB, a consulting firm that tracked 1.3 million students at 137 schools, found that students who took at least 15 credit hours during their first year were 19% more likely to graduate. They also were more likely to return for their sophomore year and have higher grade point averages. Students who received Pell Grants, the study discovered, experienced similar results.

4. Obtain Fee and Application Waivers

It can be costly to apply to colleges and universities. If you are a low-income student, ask schools about application waivers. The SAT and ACT also offer fee waivers. Schools that accept the Cappex Application and Greenlight Scholars Application agreed to waive application fees for all applicants.

5. Check out Fly-in Programs

Some schools sponsor fly-in program that will pay for primarily underrepresented students to check out their campuses. College Greenlight publishes the most popular list of college fly-in programs.

6. Pay Attention to Graduation Rates

Nationally, average graduation rates are mediocre and the rates for minorities are even worse. You can find graduation rates by race and ethnicity at the following three helpful websites:

The federal government requires schools to provide graduation rates broken down by race and gender but not by income or Pell Grant recipient status. Schools, however, must disclose their graduation rate for their Pell Grant students if a prospective student requests it.

A report from the Education Trust found that Pell Grant recipients had a six-year graduation rate of 51% versus 65% for other students. College Greenlight used the Education Trust and IPEDS data to compile two lists of the best colleges for low-income students, one for public and one for private schools.

7. Explore Summer Programs

Some schools offer free summer programs for minority students. Veronica Longstreth, a school consultant in San Diego, said an impetus for these programs was that universities were concerned that they weren’t getting minority students in certain majors, such as STEM.

You can find some of these programs through College Greenlight. One of the forums on College Confidential is also dedicated to summer programs. And you always can use Google to find programs.

8. Connect with Undergraduate-Bound Organizations

Look in your community for nonprofits that help underrepresented students get into an undergraduate program. There also are national organizations such as:

9. Check for Private Scholarships

Be sure to use Cappex when checking for private scholarships. The site includes lists of scholarships broken down by these categories:

  • African American Scholarships
  • American Indian or Native Alaskan Scholarships
  • Asian or Pacific Islander Scholarships
  • Hispanic/Latino Scholarships

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute also sponsors an online directory of scholarships, internships and fellowships for Latino students, but it can be relevant to any minorities.

Also, the office of U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard in California annually publishes a student resource guide of scholarships, internships and other opportunities. There also are scholarships available through MALDEF and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

10. Schools Don’t List Every Scholarship

Don’t assume that you’ll find all the institutional scholarships listed on a school's website. When Longstreth’s daughter, who is Latina, was looking at Southern Methodist, Oregon State and Missouri University of Science and Technology, she discovered new institutional scholarships.

These scholarships were for Hispanic students interested in engineering, but weren’t on the institutions’ websites. She found out about them by talking to admissions representatives. It never hurts to ask!

11. Don’t Ignore Elite Campuses

Only 23% of high-achieving and low-income students apply to even one selective school, compared to 48% of high-achieving and high-income students.

These statistics come from a new report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, entitled True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities. 92% of low-income students who do attend selective schools perform well and graduate.

12. Avoid Universities with Poor Financial Aid

Before you commit to any college, make sure you run the institution’s net price calculator. This special calculator will give you an estimate of what a particular college will cost after any applicable grants and scholarships are deducted.

Pell Grant recipients also should check out Pell Abacus, which is an easier tool to use that doesn’t require specific financial documents to complete it. Also calculate the actual net price after you receive financial aid award letters.

13. Borrow Through the Federal Direct Loan program

The Direct Loan, which is designed exclusively for students, is the safest loan to use and has built-in safety nets if you graduate without a well-paying job.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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