Higher Education for Low Income Students


Updated October 25, 2022

Programs exist to help low-income students overcome the challenges of higher education. Learn more about these programs here.

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Opportunities & Resources

Low income students face unique financial challenges in college which can make higher education seem out of reach. However, many programs exist to help these students succeed and budget for their education. Learn how universities are supporting low income students and find out more about the opportunities available on- and off-campus.

  • Approximately 50% of those from high income families will have a four year college degree by the age of 25; from low income families, only 10% will.

  • By getting a college degree, an individual can increase their chances by 53% of moving from the bottom 20% in family income to the middle 20% in family income.

  • Individuals with only a high school diploma make about $17,500 less per year than their college degree counterparts.

  • Getting a college degree increases chances of finding employment. In 2014, the unemployment rate for a high school graduate was 6.0%. For someone with an associate's degree, it was 4.5%; for someone with a bachelor's degree, it was 3.5%.

The hourly pay discrepancy between those with a college degree and those with a high school diploma has steadily increased over the past 40 years.

From the Expert

Felice Rollins discusses the challenges faced and success achieved by low income students.

Low-income students often face hurdles that go beyond the question of money. What are the biggest challenges you see for low-income students entering college?

Besides money, the largest hurdle that low-income college students face is an overall lack of resources. Low-income students are unlikely to have personal or professional mentors to guide them through the challenges of higher education. They are also less likely to have family support for choosing the right college, completing financial aid forms, or even regular visits once they get to school.

What can low-income students do to increase their chances of success at college?

To increase their chances of success, low-income students can actively seek out mentors among their professors, academic advisors, and dormitory staff. Finding someone who has experienced the same challenges can help students become more comfortable in the college environment.

What do you consider the best resources for low-income students?

The best resources for low-income students are college-based programs designed to increased persistence for under-served students. One example is Student Support Services, a U.S. Department of Education program that provides academic advising, tutoring, and financial assistance for low-income, first-generation and homeless college students.

What promising things are colleges doing right now to help ensure low-income students have the best opportunities?

Many colleges are starting to use the "intrusive advising" model that assumes that many students, especially those from low-income families, will need proactive strategies to solve issues instead of waiting for students to seek assistance.

Anything you might like to add about resources/help for low-income students?

Low-income students are often shy about sharing their challenges with others. Since they are unlikely to have family members or friends from home that can help guide them, it is crucial that they seek out guidance from others that can act as an extended family while they are in school.

Getting to College Barriers Low-Income Students Face and Ways to Overcome

The benefits of attending college as a way to increase economic success are clear. However, hurdles still remain that make it difficult for lower-income individuals to get into college at all. Here are some of those issues, and how low-income students can overcome them.

Issue: Being prepared to take college entrance exams

Many students do not prepare ahead of time for the college entrance exams; this means lower scores on standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT which in turn makes it harder to get accepted into college. Even if accepted into college, a lower score decreases the chances of receiving merit-based financial aid.


One way to overcome this phenomenon is to make sure low income students take a recommended “core” curriculum which includes four years of English and three years of math, science and social studies. Lower income students are less likely than higher income students to take a “core” curriculum while in high school.

Issue: Getting extra academic help

College acceptance and merit-based student financial aid are substantially dependent on academic performance. Low-income students have increased the difficulty in getting this extra help. For example, receiving academic tutoring can help boost a student's grades, but tutoring often costs money. Even if students can stay after school to receive extra help with their school work from teachers, there may be transportation issues.


Some solutions include providing academic resources to students to help them study on their own, such as free books or computer resources. If schools do not explicitly offer free help, students can still ask for it from their teachers and guidance counselors, who will more than likely be able to oblige.

Issue: Paying for college

The price of a four-year degree has steadily risen over recent years. For example, in Arizona, Washington State, and Georgia, the price of college has risen over 70% — in some cases, the costs are so high that college is priced out of range for even those from high-income families.


Some colleges are trying to alleviate this issue by offering free or reduced tuition, as well as capping the amount of loans students are required to take on. There are also need and merit-based scholarships to help pay for college. Students have the option of working while in college to help raise funds to pay for tuition.

Issue: Filling out financial aid paperwork

Filling out these documents can be a nightmare, especially forms like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). It can be so complex that there are actually fee-based services to assist in filling out and submitting the FAFSA®. Low income or not, many parents have so much difficulty with the FAFSA® that they do not complete it.


Students can request help with their FAFSA® and other forms by speaking with their school administration and guidance counselors. Students can also contact the financial aid offices of colleges they are interested in attending and ask any questions they may have or request assistance with that particular school's financial aid portion of the college application.

Issue: Paying college application fees

This fee is usually $30 to $90 but can be more, depending on the school. When applying to several schools, these fees can really add up. Low-income students may not apply to certain schools (or as many) because of them. Whether low-income students or not, applying to several schools can add up to a semester's worth of books.


Low income students have several ways around college application fees. Some colleges waive the application fee recommendation, make an in-person visit to the college, or have exceptional academic credentials. Many colleges also waive application fees to students who demonstrate financial need.

Issue: A difference in priorities

Even after accounting for student ability, many low-income students do not attend college compared to their higher income peers. Some students are simply not encouraged or pushed to attend college, and they are not surrounded by resources that make college applications a priority.


Figuring out the college application and enrollment process can be daunting, but as long as the student has the desire and will to attend, they can take the lead in the process. Talking to teachers, guidance counselors and other high school peers (who intend to enroll in college after graduating high school) can provide a lot of information and motivation to attend college.

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Staying in College Challenges & Barriers Low-Income Students May Face

Once a student does enter college, the lack of funds can mean problems that they didn't expect. Here are some of the barriers that might lead to even the most dedicated student dropping out of college.

1. Day-to-day disruptions

For low-income students, small disruptions in life can have more serious consequences. For example, having a car break down can immediately derail college attendance. Even if the car repairs only cost a few hundred dollars, that economic hurdle can make it impossible for someone to finish their college education if they're a few hundred dollars short to pay for books, tuition or rent.

2. Lack of childcare

Some non-traditional students have children to consider. The lack of childcare options can be a serious impediment to completing a degree, especially for students who take classes on campus and not online. Private daycare costs a significant amount of money, and most students can't always expect to have a family member or friend to watch over their little one.

3. Increasing tuition costs

College tuition is rising dramatically in recent years, and financial aid packages aren't always able to cover the increased costs. Again, just a few hundred dollars can make a difference; at some schools, a significant portion of students who drop out are less than $1,000 delinquent on their school tuition costs.

4. Being a first generation college student

About one in four first generation college students are low income, and almost 90% do not complete their college degree. One of the reasons for this is that first generation college students have to balance college and non-college life. Parents and family members who haven't attended college are less likely to understand or be sympathetic to college related stresses or issues.

5. Financial aid obligations

Whether it's maintaining a certain GPA or submitting updated financial information, many students receive less financial aid during their second, third of fourth years of college. Even when grades are maintained or documents submitted on time, any delay can drastically reduce a student's financial aid package. Many schools have a limited amount of financial aid to give out to students, with a first-come-first-served policy. Students who submit financial aid information late may have little or no money available to them.

6. Pressure to succeed

Many low income students may feel a stronger than normal pressure to succeed in college. This pressure can stem from the student knowing they have to do well to get a high paying job to help support their family; the pressure of being the first in the family to graduate from college can also be quite strong.

7. Being mentally unprepared

While a student may have the ambition, they may not be prepared for the academic rigors of college. The state of unpreparedness can be caused by ineffective high school classes or a lack of guidance. Low-income students are also more likely to have to work while attending college. Being able to balance this third obligation (in addition to classwork and social life) can make succeeding in college more difficult.

8. Poor academic fit

Due to financial constraints, a low income student may know that they have to graduate in four years or less because they simply cannot afford to attend college any longer. They may also choose a major that gives them the best chance of landing a higher paying job after graduation. When these goals do not align with what the student really wants to do, it can lead to poorer academic performance, which in turn can increase the chances of dropping out.

10 Ways Colleges Can Ensure Success

The situation for low income students seems dire, but it doesn't have to be that way. Colleges are stepping up to help low income students find the success they deserve in higher education.

  • Faculty Advisors

    These seasoned advisors can answer questions about college academic life, including how to choose a major, course loads and career recommendations. Faculty advisors usually meet with students individually during their freshman year in order to make sure they are on track to graduate on time and take a major of their choice. The faculty advisors can also direct the student to further assistance on non-academic issues.

  • Success Center

    Iowa Lakes Community College offers a great example with Success Center, which provides online, interactive services to students to help them accomplish their academic goals. Specifically, the Success Center offers students two interactive online programs: one program is geared toward students who have scored low on their reading, writing and math concepts. The other is specifically tailored to offering additional lessons in basic math.

  • Finish in 4

    Auburn University's “Finish in 4” program is designed to make sure students finish their bachelor's degree in four years. The program accomplishes this goal by offering no additional tuition costs to students who take more than 12 credit hours in a semester. The program also provides advice, tips and general guidance to ensure students stay on track with their degree.

  • Degree Audit

    Whether offered online or through in-person consultation, many schools allow students to check on the progress of their degree. Students can make sure they have enough credits to graduate, have taken the right classes to obtain their desired major, or have taken all of the core courses a college may require of all students as a condition of graduation.

  • Tuition Promise Scholarship

    These unique programs provide low income students an opportunity to attend a top-notch school. Berea College is a good example; through a mix of financial aid and work study programs, there is no cost to attend the college. However, students must demonstrate an exceptional academic history.

  • The Harvard Financial Aid Initiative

    Harvard has a tradition of reducing the financial burden for those who can make the grades but can't afford the tuition. Students who come from families that make less than $65,000 per year pay nothing in tuition.

  • TRiO

    Federally funded programs offered at many colleges and universities provide additional assistance to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Examples of assistance include individualized counseling and advising, academic tutoring, additional financial aid and priority class registration.

  • Intrusive Advising

    With intrusive advising, advisors take the first step to interact with students. Most schools offer student or faculty advisors, but after a few initial contacts, it's up to the student to seek additional help; some students might not reach out for it. Intrusive advising might be triggered by missed classes or appointments.

  • Success Academy

    Offered by Georgia State University, the Success Academy is an invitation-only program that provides extra learning opportunities and support to new students. Success Academy is intended to help students transition from high school and home life to college life.

  • Programs for Academic Services and Success (PASS)

    PASS is a program run by Mercer County Community College. Tailored for disadvantaged students, PASS offers a number of services and programs to promote degree completion and academic success. Services offered include career development, academic tutoring, financial aid and a pre-class summer program for incoming students.

Resources for Specific Low Income Challenges

Entering college can be intimidating for anyone. Low-income and other disadvantaged students often feel like they don't belong in college, whether it's academically or socially. Being overly self-conscious is compounded with the added stress and pressure of succeeding in school and being able to meet financial obligations. The below list of resources are tailored to low income college students.


  • Campus Resources Office of Student Housing Services

    Every college and university with on campus housing options has an office of student housing. The office of student housing manages all of the dorms and apartments available to students. They will also have information about off campus options and resources available for students who are under financial distress.

  • Off-Campus Help Community Shelters

    Many municipalities, both large and small, have temporary residence facilities to assist those who need temporary housing. Availability is usually limited and residential services are usually temporary, but community shelters can provide a stop-gap resource for students who need a place to live until a more permanent option can be found.

    HUD Programs

    Subsidized housing options are available through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD offers public housing, Section 8 housing, and privately owned subsidized housing to qualified individuals, including students.

    Local Family or Friends

    A family member or friend who lives near the school might provide a temporary or permanent place to live. Students might also be able to get help with transportation to and from school while living with a family or friend, such as carpooling and ride-share programs.

    Single Stop USA

    This site provides a “single stop” for those looking for low income resources online. Single Stop USA provides comprehensive services for low income individuals and families, including working with students from community colleges to meet their housing needs.

  • Online Resources Low Income Housing

    This website provides a consolidated location for resources available to individuals and families who are low income. The site provides online listing for affordable housing options, whether the apartment simply has low rent or accepts Section 8 vouchers and everything in between. The service is free and anyone can sign up.

    HUD: Local Information

    The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development provides federal housing assistance, but HUD also has a list of state and local government housing resources for those who need rental assistance.


    This website assists college students with finding the right apartment. Apartments are searchable based on where the college is located. It also factors in preferences based on privacy, room layout, amenities and distance to campus in helping students find the best apartment.

Food and Living Essentials

  • Campus Resources Campus Food Pantry

    A select few universities run food banks. One such example is the University of Central Florida's Knights Helping Knights Pantry which allows students to choose up to five food items per day, no questions asked. There are also toiletries and clothing available for those who need them.

    Emergency Meal Fund

    Some schools, such as Columbia University, allow students who have left over cafeteria plan meals to donate them to students who are hungry. By utilizing an app, students with extra meal plans can be matched with students who need the meals.

    Financial Aid and Food Assistance Services

    The specific department or office that coordinates and compiles a list of resources can vary, but each school will have information regarding food assistance available to students. Information can include contact and location information of local food banks as well as charity organizations that can help.

  • Off-Campus Help Community Food Pantries & Soup Kitchens

    Most communities have a food pantry or soup kitchen where recipients can receive free or reduced cost food. They can help save low income students a little more on occasion and assist in making ends meet in the long run. Some food pantries also offer gently used clothing as well as toiletries.


    Formerly referred to as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program allows qualified individuals and families to buy groceries from participating food stores. Typically, students are excluded from participating in SNAP, but certain non-traditional or low income students are still eligible.

  • Online Resources The Campus Kitchens Project

    Realizing how much food was being wasted by all-you-can-eat buffet style college cafeterias, students found a way to take the leftover food and make it available to individuals in need. The Campus Kitchens Project provides many food related services including food recovery, cooking and meal delivery.


    From affordable housing to free stuff to how to volunteer, the Homeless Shelter Directory has a wealth of information. One specific directory is a list of emergency food resources based on location.

    Feeding America

    This is a nationwide network of food banks with the goal of fixing the hunger problem in the United States. With the efforts of Feeding America, over 46 million Americans are fed through food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens each year.

Gaining a Source of Income While in College

  • Campus Resources Work Study

    Most colleges and universities have work study programs; in these programs, the school offers jobs (usually on campus) to its students. This is unique when compared to a typical “after school” job because the school is very accommodating of the students' class schedule and academic needs.

    Office of Career Services

    While traditionally focused on helping graduates find full-time jobs and careers, a school's career services office can also help find employment, whether during the school year or during one of the various summer or holiday breaks.

  • Off-Campus Help Craigslist

    Every town has one, and here you'll find listing for local (and remote) part time jobs, full time jobs and temporary jobs. Jobs include child care, computer help, fitness instructors, delivery drivers and more.

  • Online Resources Freelancing

    Whether it's providing private tutoring, music lessons, transportation or writing services, freelancing can provide additional income for college students. There are many online websites that cater to freelance work and allow individuals to provide their services for a fee, including:

    The Riley Guide

    Founded in 1994 and recommended by numerous government and educational institutions, this site serves as a compendium of online career and education advice and job listings. All information and resources are individually reviewed by the site's editors.

Emergency Help & Support

  • Campus Resources Emergency Loans

    Some schools have emergency loans available for students who need a little bit of cash to handle any of life's unexpected expenses. These loans are usually limited to several hundred dollars per academic year and must be paid back, but they help provide a safety net to students who might otherwise have to drop out of school due to a financial emergency.

    Financial Aid

    Some financial aid offices administer the above mentioned emergency loans, but the financial aid office can also helpful in reassessing a student's financial aid package due to an unforeseen circumstance, such as a parent losing a job.

  • Off-Campus Help Scholarship America Dreamkeepers

    A program that provides students with cash assistance for financial emergencies. Most of the grants and loans amount to a few hundred dollars and are used to pay for food, housing, transportation and childcare. This program also offers financial literacy education to help students make smart financial decisions.

  • Online Resources 2-1-1

    Run by the United Way Worldwide, 211.org provides confidential and free information for a wide range of life emergencies, such as housing and food. While not providing the emergency help directly, 211.org can direct users to local organizations that can assist.

    The Salvation Army

    One of the more well-known charitable organizations, The Salvation Army offers shelter and food emergency aid to those who need the extra help, including students.

Emotional Support for
Low Income & Struggling Students

  • Campus Resources Student Health and Wellness Center

    Whether it's part of the student health services office or its own office, almost all colleges and universities have a provider of psychiatric, counseling and mental health services. If a student needs someone to talk to or receive emotional support, this should be one of the first places to try.

  • Off-Campus Help Counseling Services

    Whether through a private practice counselor or a medical facility, students always have the option of seeking emotional support from a licensed therapist or counselor, often on a sliding scale and/or included on insurance plans.

  • Online Resources Student Mental Health Guide

    Check out our student mental health guide, offering expert advice and school resources for getting help for college stress.


    An anonymous online resource guide for information concerning the emotional health of college students. More than 1,500 college and universities are participants in the ULifeline Network.

    Anxiety and Depression Association of America

    The ADDA is a non-profit organization with the primary goal of helping children and adults with anxiety and mood disorders.

    Mental Health America

    MHA is a nonprofit organization focused on helping those who suffer from mental illness. There also a special section just for college students called Life on Campus, which looks at how to manage stress and maintain good mental health.

Student Healthcare

  • Campus Resources Student Health Services

    Almost every campus has a student health services department or office that's available to students, usually 24 hours a day while school is in session. Typical services provided include immunizations, laboratory testing, psychiatric evaluation, physical checkups and acute care for illness or injury.

    School Sponsored Health Insurance

    Many schools offer health insurance directly to their students at reasonable rates. Depending on the student's medical and financial situation, this may be the cheapest option for students who seek health insurance coverage.

  • Off-Campus Help Parent or Guardian Healthcare Plan

    Assuming a student's parents have healthcare, those under the age of 26 can stay on their parents' health insurance plan, which will normally be cheaper than the student getting private insurance on their own.

    The Affordable Care Act

    Many low income families or individuals can purchase health insurance through state insurance exchanges and also get federally subsidized discounts if income levels are low enough.

    Walk-in Clinic

    Most walk-in clinics can provide cheap medical care for basic illnesses, such as the flu, ear infections, strep throat and minor wounds. Vaccines are also offered at walk-in clinics.

    Planned Parenthood

    Provides sexual and reproductive health services to individuals. Certain services, such as pap smears and pregnancy or STD/STI testing, are provided at a reduced rate, often for little or no cost, depending on the patient's ability to pay.

  • Online Resources Healthcare.gov

    This is the federal government website for the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare.” Students can get more information about health insurance, such as how to buy it and understand how it works, as well as purchase health insurance plans from this website.

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College Financing & Scholarships for Low Income Students

For low income students, paying for college is a major challenge. However, there are many financial aid options available to defray the expense. Below is a step-by-step checklist to obtaining college financing for college.1

Step 1

The first thing students should do is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which becomes available in October of each year. Even if students don't plan on getting any federal student aid, many schools rely on the FAFSA® for financial aid determination of the scholarships it gives to its own students.

The FAFSA® can be complicated to fill out and students and their parents are bound to have questions. There is an abundance of advice on how to fill out the FAFSA®ways to avoid FAFSA® errors and expert answers to common FAFSA® questions.2

Step 2

Grants do not need to be repaid, so students should seek them out. The most common for low income students is the Pell Grant, which offers up to $5,775 to eligible students for the 2015-2016 academic year. Another is the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, which provides between $100 and $4,000 per year.

Unlike grants, loans need to repaid; however, they might make sense or some students. Examples of federal loans include the William D. Ford Federal Direct and Federal Perkins Loans, which have interest rates around 4-5 percent.

There's also the Federal Work-Study Program, which provides part-time jobs to college students to help pay for tuition and related fees. There's a limit on the number of hours a student can work. The federal government will pay for 50% of the student's wage, with the school paying the other 50%.3

Step 3

After examining what federal financial aid options are available, students can explore their state financial aid options. Every state has its own set of rules and information needed for determination of financial eligibility, though most states require the FAFSA® to be completed in addition to any state specific application forms.4

Step 4

Explore private scholarship opportunities. There are literally thousands available, with many utilizing financial need as a major, if not primary determining factor as to who gets the scholarship. Some of these are listed in the next section.

Scholarships for Low Income Students

Aimco Cares Opportunity Scholarship

Sponsored by the National Leased Housing Association, the Aimco Cares Opportunity Scholarship is given to low income individuals who live in federally assisted rental housing and are pursuing an undergraduate degree. The award amount varies and the application deadline is December 1, 2015.

Children of Divorce Scholarship

The law firm of Ayo & Iken provides two students with $1,000 scholarship each for their first year of college. Applicants must be Florida high school seniors who come from a divided household due to divorce. The application deadline is May 1, 2016.

Crane Fund for Widows and Children

Run by the Crane Company, the Crane Fund for Widows and Children Scholarship gives $500 to $1,000 scholarship awards to undergraduate students whose husband or father cannot help with the student's education as a result of disability or death. The application deadline varies.

I'm First!

Sponsored by the Center for Student Opportunity, this scholarship is awarded to up to 10 high school seniors who will be the first in their family to attend college. The award is $1,000 per year, but is renewable each year for a total of $4,000 in scholarship money over four years. The application deadline varies, but the process typically begins in January.

NEED Scholarship

The NEED Scholarship Fund provides between $1,000 to $3,500 to students who, after receiving other financial aid, are still a little short in paying for college. This scholarship supplements other financial aid awards and does not replace them. The application deadline is May 31.

Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Support Award

The Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Foundation offers five total awards to low income women who are mothers of minor children. Individual awards can amount to $5,000. The Application deadline varies, but the application process will reopen in April of 2016.

Ray Snader Scholarship

The Law office of Howard A. Snader, L.L.C. offers a $2,000 scholarship to students who need financial assistance to attend college, where the financial need is the result of one of the student's parents being held in custody or incarcerated. Applications must be submitted by July 31, 2016.

The American Legion Legacy Scholarship

The American Legion awards annual scholarships (scholarship can be renewed) to children whose parent or parents died on or after September 11, 2011 while on active duty as a member of the United States Armed Forces. Award amount depends on the amount of income generated by the scholarship trust and students must use the scholarship award to pursue an undergraduate degree. The application deadline is April 15.

The Gates Millennium Scholars Program

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this program provides scholarships of varying amounts (the average award is about $12,500) to students who are low income, are of a racial minority and meet certain academic requirements. The application deadline is January 13, 2016.

Watson Brown Foundation Scholarship

Select students from Georgia and South Carolina who demonstrate financial need and academic merit are eligible for $3,000 and $5,000 renewable scholarships. Students must attend an accredited four year educational institution in the United States and submit application materials by February 15.

Popular Resources

Whether you’re looking to earn your online degree or you’re a parent looking for answers, you can find all of your questions covered here. Explore these resources to help you make informed decisions and prepare for whatever is thrown your way.

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