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Lessons Learned from Washington, D.C.: A Chance to Advocate for Low-Income Students

Financial Wellness Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
August 6, 2015 Vijay Pendakur

This May, I was asked by my President to serve as her delgate at a hearing in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was holding a two day hearing to gather facts and perspectives on the impact of federal financial aid on higher education access and equity. The timing of the hearing is especially improtant, given the impending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in the next year. I was asked to attend the hearing and testify as part of one of the panels of experts. I prepared a seven mintue testimony on the specific federal investments access programs at my institution, California State University - Fullerton, and then I participated in an exciting Q&A after all of the panalists finished their testimonies.

During my preparation for the hearing, and on the plane flight home, I thought a lot about the work of the Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education Knowledge Community. As a KC, we often speak about the numerous challenges to low-income students succeeding in higher education. Some of the challenges are tied to how the federal government distributes certain types of funding. For example, the funding formula for Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) preferences institutions that can show a large gap between their cost of attendence and the need of their students. This outdated funding formula has not been revised in nearly four decades and, in turn, rewards high-cost private institutions, rather than low-cost institutions where the majority of low-income students seek higher education. In 2012-13, as a result of problematic funding formulas, 34.9% of FSEOG aid went to private institutions and only 31.2% went to public 4-year institutions, even though private institutions serve far fewer low-income students. Another way to understand this problem is to look at the FSEOG distributions to only two stystems: the Ivy League schools and the California State University (CSU) system. The latter system is the largest public system in the country, with 23 campuses serving more than 460,000 students. Futhermore, the CSU system is designed to be access-focused and is a majority-minority system with 49% of the total students receiving Pell grants. In 2013-14, due to FSEOG aid formulas, the 8 Ivy League institutions that serve only 65,000 students in total, received $10 million in FSEOG aid, versus the entire CSU system, which received just over $11 million.

My time in Washington challenged me to think about higher education access not just as a campus-based problem, but as a policy issue. The FSEOG example I've shared in this blog post is just one case of many where outdated or poorly conceived federal funding formulas or policies end up narrowing access and opportuniy in higher education for low-income students. As a Knowledge Community dedicated to improving the experience of low-income students on our campuses, we must keep one eye trained on Washington so we can advocate for necesssary changes in the larger policy ecosystem that can improve conditions on our individual campuses. If you're interested in checking out the C-SPAN coverage of the hearing, take a look here.

Dr. Vijay Pendakur serves as an Associate Vice President for Student Affairs at California State University – Fullerton.  Prior to joining Cal State Fullerton, Dr. Pendakur served as the Director for the Office of Multicultural Student Success, a department charged with increasing the retention and persistence of low-income students, first generation students, and students of color at DePaul University in Chicago. He is the editor of the forthcoming book, “Strategies to Close the Achievement Gap: Identity-Conscious Approaches Retention and Student Success” and serves as the public policy chair for NASPA’s Knowledge Community on Socioeconomic Class in Higher Education.