The Challenges of Accessing Higher Education (and How to Make College More Affordable)

A guest post from Margaret Lipman

It’s a well-established fact that a college education generally translates to a higher income and greater economic stability throughout one’s lifetime. Historically, however, higher education has been a privilege primarily for the wealthy. Even today, students from higher-income families are more likely to attend a four-year college or university than those from low-income families.

Specifically, students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile are eight times less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree than those in the top quartile. Even low-income students who have done well in high school and scored highly on standardized tests are less likely to obtain a college degree than peers from higher-income families. That’s because students from lower socio-economic backgrounds face significant barriers in paying for higher education, staying in school, and completing their degrees.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy found that students from high-income families (those earning $160,000 or more) could afford about 90 percent of more than 2,000 colleges studied. But students from low- and moderate-income families (those earning $69,000 or less) could only afford 5 percent, or fewer, of those colleges

The need for greater affordability in higher education is particularly true in Oakland, a city of stark contrasts. Oakland has more per capita college graduates (43 percent) than the national average,  which is about 32 percent. Oakland residents are also slightly wealthier than average: the median household income in Oakland is over $68,000, compared to about $60,300 nationwide.

At the same time, however, Oakland has a higher poverty rate. In Oakland, nearly one in every six residents lives in poverty, compared to about one of 10 people nationwide. That’s especially significant because low-income students in Oakland are 18 times more likely to attend the lowest-performing schools than their better-off peers. 

As has long been pointed out by Great School Voices, Oakland also has a wide disparity in the digital resources available for high school students.  While many Oakland neighborhoods have access to high-speed Internet, many others do not. Of the Oakland Unified School District’s roughly 50,000 students, some 17,000 lack internet connections

So what can be done to increase lower-income students’ access to higher education? Encouragingly, there are widespread federal and state initiatives to make college more affordable, as well as a growing number of scholarship opportunities. Additionally, higher education institutions are scaling up their efforts to admit and support low-income students.

  • Efforts are underway to make Federal Pell Grants more widely available and increase their value – helping keep up with rising educational costs. 
  • Scholarships have always been a vital resource for deserving students who may lack the financial means to attend college. However, locating and applying for these scholarships can be a challenge. Innovative scholarship platforms such as are changing the scholarship application process by allowing students to apply for multiple scholarships at once. features many unique scholarship opportunities that aren’t listed anywhere else and that are donated by individuals and organizations looking to improve access to higher education. 
  • Faced with intense criticism over skyrocketing costs, private colleges and universities across the country have expanded efforts to provide more expansive financial aid and lower entry costs. For example, Stanford and Harvard have waived tuition and room-and-board costs for admitted students from families earning less than $65,000. Rice University is virtually free for families who make under $65k annually and offers generous financial support for students from families who make up to $200k. Stanford also offers free tuition to admitted students from families with incomes below $125,000. Some schools have also waived application costs.
  • In some cases, fees for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT can be waived for students from low-income families, and fee waiver students can have score reports sent to prospective colleges and universities for free. Additionally, spurred by the coronavirus pandemic’s effects, many colleges are dropping the use of standardized tests for admissions. 
  • Some schools are making use of open-source or online textbooks, which tend to be less expensive. Companies such as VitalSource offer digital textbook rental, which is significantly less costly than purchasing a new or even a used textbook.
  • Many community college students have been forced to take remedial courses – at their own expense – to make up for gaps in their learning. Some states are now allowing students to waive the requirement for remedial classes or are redesigning their remedial programs.

Despite these efforts, there are enormous economic hurdles to a successful college or university education for students from low-income families. Even as many universities try to keep a lid on tuition costs, students have to contend with rising costs related to housing, food, textbooks, transportation, and more. In fact, hunger is a widespread, though often unacknowledged, problem on many college campuses. Nearly half of college respondents in a 2016 report said they had experienced food insecurity during the previous 30 days.
Although there is still a long way to go to make higher education more affordable and the admissions process more equitable, there is a growing awareness that low-income students face significant barriers in accessing and graduating from college. More and more politicians are incorporating access to higher education into their campaign promises, such as Senator Bernie Sanders’ plan to eliminate tuition and cancel student debt. Hopefully, this is a sign that institutions, states, and the federal government are beginning to recognize the importance of removing barriers to higher education in the pursuit of creating a more equitable society. 

Margaret Lipman is a writer for She has a background in teaching and enjoys writing about how families can prepare for the college journey.

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