Tips for Disadvantaged Students on How to Cover College Costs

on August 23, 2017

Low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students experience the hardest time affording college and graduating with 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 in college and ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree.


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, which makes the effort worthless.


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. Go Full Time


If at all possible, attend college full time. Your chances of graduating 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 colleges, found that students who took at least 15 credit hours during their freshmen year were 19 percent 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 applying to colleges. If you are low-income, ask colleges about application waivers. The SAT and ACT also offer fee waivers. Colleges that accept the Cappex Application and Greenlight Scholars Application have agreed to waive application fees for all applicants.


5. Check out Fly-in Programs


Some colleges 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 college graduation rates by race and ethnicity at the following three helpful websites:


College Completion, a microsite of The Chronicle of Higher Education


College Results Online, a service of the Education Trust


College Navigator, a tool provided by the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education


The federal government requires colleges to provide it with graduation rates broken down by race and gender but not by income or Pell Grant recipient status. Colleges, 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 percent versus 65 percent 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 with public colleges and one with private colleges.


7. Explore Summer Programs


Some colleges offer free summer programs for minority and first-generation students.


Veronica Longstreth, a college 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. These offerings, which you also can see referred to as bridge programs, sometimes are free or modestly priced even for minority students who don’t have financial need.


You can find some of these programs, which are primarily geared toward high school sophomores and juniors, through College Greenlight. One of the forums on College Confidential is dedicated to college summer programs. And you always can use Google to find programs.


8. Connect with College-Bound Organizations


Look in your community for nonprofits that help underrepresented students get into college. There also are national organizations such as The Posse Foundation, Questbridge, CollegePoint and ScholarMatch.


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:



The Cappex scholarships database provides you with a targeted list of scholarships that match your background.


The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute sponsors an online directory of scholarships, internships and fellowships for Latino students but it can be relevant to any minorities. 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. Colleges Don’t List Every Scholarship


Don’t assume you’ll find all the institutional scholarships listed on a college’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 institutional scholarships for Hispanic students interested in engineering that weren’t on the institutions’ website. She found out about them by talking to admission representatives.


11. Don’t Ignore Elite Colleges


Only 23 percent of high-achieving, low-income students apply to even one selective college, compared to 48 percent of high-achieving, 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.


Ninety-two percent of smart, low-income students who do attend selective colleges 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 for the students 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.


Here is a previous Cappex post on net price calculators:


Families Aren’t Using this Cost-Busting College Tool


Also calculate the actual net price after you receive financial aid award letters from the colleges that admit you.


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 getting a good-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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