How accessible are state financial aid programs?

State financial aid programs have not kept up with the rising cost of attending college over the past two decades, but there are steps policymakers can take to ensure all students have equitable access to the aid they provide, says an April report by The Education Trust, an education advocacy organization. The report, which evaluates the accessibility and fairness of 26 state financial aid programs across 10 states, finds that they are often unable to meet the needs of historically marginalized student populations, which includes first-generation students, student parents, military-connected students, and working adults.

“This diverse array of students faces many challenges on their journey toward a college degree, and they deserve the financial support they need to achieve their goals,” says the report.

Financing education for today’s students

As state investments in higher education have declined, the cost of attending college has increasingly shifted to students and their families. The changes have had a disproportionate impact on students from historically marginalized communities—populations that tend to have less wealth and face greater barriers to pursuing a higher education. While need-based Federal Pell Grants cover a portion of college costs for low-income students, those grants have lost much of their purchasing power, leaving students ever-more reliant on state financial aid programs. However, the criteria for receiving aid exacerbate systemic barriers to college for students from underserved communities.

“The lack of financial aid disproportionately deters Black and Latin[e] students, and students from low-income backgrounds, from pursuing higher education and earning a college degree,” says The Education Trust.

Related: The enduring, widening disparities that limit Black students’ degree attainment >

Assessing state financial aid programs

The report looks at programs across California, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington. Researchers assessed the programs across 12 key eligibility requirements, including their program type (need-based only, merit only, or need and merit); required applications, such as the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) or alternative options for undocumented students; standardized test requirements; and annual award amount, among other other factors.

Many states have criteria that limit access to funding. Programs with residency and citizenship requirements, and those that do not take alternatives to FAFSA—such as those in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Tennessee—sideline undocumented students. Others deny access to formerly incarcerated students. Merit-based programs, like most Tennessee financial aid programs, often require high GPAs or standardized test scores, limiting access for students from underresourced communities, who may experience significant barriers to academic success.

“The ways in which requirements have been in previous years and throughout time, they do not account for evolving student populations in the ways in which students come into postsecondary education,” report author Brittani Williams, a former financial aid counselor, tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education


To ensure state financial aid programs meet the needs of a more diverse student population, the report calls on policymakers to implement more equitable funding criteria and address educational barriers for historically marginalized communities. Prioritizing need-based programs over merit-based programs is one crucial step. Other recommendations include increasing the amount of aid students receive from state programs; providing aid to all students, even if they attend college less than full-time; and standardizing state aid offers so they clearly communicate total college cost, all aid offered, and retention requirements.

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