College Success For Low Income Students


Updated April 12, 2023

College Success For Low Income Students is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Success Tips & School Research for Financially Challenged Students

According to the U.S. Department of Education, students from low-income families are generally under-prepared and less qualified for college than their higher-income peers. But a growing number of these students are bucking the trend and successfully attending college—the difference in enrollment rates between low- and high-income students is narrowing, from a gap 30 percentage points wide in 2000 to just over half of that in 2016. Colleges and universities are creating programs to help low-income students access higher education, with many making specific efforts to assure these students complete a degree. Learn more about which schools are graduating high numbers of low-income students, and get tips, advice and information on the programs designed to foster college success.

How is Low-Income Determined, and Why Does it Matter for College?

A teacher might not be able to tell a student from a low-income family from other students just by looking at them, but the differences are there, and are much more prevalent than many people think. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 21 percent of all children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold; this equates to more than 15 million kids living in poverty.

What is the federal poverty threshold?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determines a poverty threshold for statistical analysis. Additional poverty guidelines are issued by the Department to be used for determining financial eligibility for federal programs, including federal college aid. For example, the 2018 guidelines place the poverty threshold for a single-person household at $12,000 a year. A four-person household is below the poverty threshold if they make $25,100 a year or less.

Why is this important for college?

There are a growing number of services and opportunities designed to make earning a college degree more achievable for low-income individuals. Think beyond the scholarships or grants that help with tuition and consider the steps earlier in the college preparation process. O'Donnell advises, “qualifying as low-income will make you eligible for SAT and ACT fee waivers as well as college application waivers.” Beyond these fee waivers, students who qualify as low-income may be able to take advantage of free college prep and transition coursesmentoring and advising services and meal programs that lighten the financial burden of earning a college degree.

If you don't know where to start, O'Donnell points to taking the SAT and ACT tests. She suggests it may also be a signal for other financial help, “this will save you hundreds of dollars as well as increase your eligibility for significant financial aid at many colleges.” Read more about financial aid programs below: is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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The Best Colleges for Low-Income Students

While cost may be a leading concern, there are many factors that make a college a great fit for low-income students. Look for schools who have a proven track record of investing in the success of students who come from underserved areas and backgrounds. We have narrowed down a list of schools that are going above and beyond, serving high percentages of low-income students and providing them with the best combination of support, from student services to financial aid and graduation success. Each school listed also offers fully online undergraduate program options, giving low-income students the flexibility to look beyond their state borders at the best higher education opportunities in the nation.

SchoolLocationPell Grant RecipientsMedian Debt
1. South Florida State College Lakel, FL46%$5,000
2. Saint Peter's UniversityNewark, NJ 53% $25,000
3. Lincoln Memorial UniversityMiddles borough, TN60%$17,020
4. Florida International UniversityMiami, FL56% $17,228
5. Mississippi University For WomenColumbus, MS44% $15,000
6. SUNY College of Technology at AlfredOlean, NY 44% $14,874
7. University of Mount Olive Goldsboro, NC52%$28,006
8. Fresno Pacific UniversityFresno, CA56%$21,500
9. Southern Wesleyan UniversityGreenville, SC62%$27,000
10. Claflin University Columbia, SC 55%$32,185
11. Florida Atlantic UniversityPort St. Lucie, FL51% $16,861
12. Santa Fe College Gainesville, FL 52% $11,025
13. Carlow University Pittsburgh, PA44%$27,000
14. Sam Houston State University Huntsville, TX 46%$21,500
15. Chaminade University of Honolulu Honolulu, HI51%$22,500

Expert Insight:
Challenges Poor Students Face & Resources to Help

Students with financial struggles face a unique and increasingly difficult set of trials, and it shows in their college outcomes: only 15 percent of low-income students completed a bachelor's degree in 2015, compared to 29 percent of middle-income students. The reasons for this disparity are varies, from physical factors like lack of college role models or family obligations to socioeconomic factors like feelings of camaraderie and belonging on campus.

Lack of College Role Models

For many middle- and high-income students, going to college is an expectation or at least a known possibility. Many of these scholars have one or both parents who went to college, as well as siblings and extended family members.

While every student has individual circumstances, many of our first-generation students communicate that it is hard to plan for college when they do not have a parent or close adult who has been to college to emulate – they often are held back by what they don't know.

Resources to Help:

  • First in the FamilyAn online resource library designed specifically for first-generation college students to explore the possibility of higher education.
  • On-Campus Peer MentoringThese services can be found on many college campuses, pairing freshmen with upperclassmen to help one another overcome low-income risk factors.
  • Peer ForwardUnleashing the power of peer mentorship, this program trains and pairs high school students together to help one another learn about and apply for college and financial aid.

Exposure to Planning Tools

There are many supportive resources available to low-income college students, including knowledgeable high school counselors and aid-specific programs. But it's tough to take advantage of these people and programs if you don't know they exist. According to O'Donnell, students have a hard time preparing for college when they aren't aware of the help available, steps it takes to get there, or the associated costs.

Students cannot plan for a deadline, a scholarship, or an honors program if they don't know it exists,” she says. “They cannot afford to take or retake the SAT and ACT if they do not know to ask their counselor for a fee waiver. They cannot apply to all the schools they want to if they don't know that these fees can also be waived.

Resources to Help:

  • College PossibleA college counseling program that provides a personal coach for low-income students.
  • Khan Academy, College Planning CoursesThis system of online courses explains the college admissions process and is free for anyone to explore.
  • Local College FairsCheck for local college fairs, such as College Connect in Colorado, where colleges and universities gather to provide high school students with information on their campus, programs and services.

Financial Barriers

Another valid concern for students is simple: money. What does one choose if forced to decide between food and books? Or rent money and clothes? Or gasoline and internet? Or time spent working or going to class? These ongoing choices are consistent hurdles that low-income students have to constantly leap over to keep up with other undergraduates.

Resources to Help:

  • College and University Food Bank AllianceFor students choosing between food and financing their education, this listing provides the names of over 400 on-campus food banks.
  • The College CarpoolThis online carpool service offers college students free rides to and from school and home.
  • Fee Waivers for the SATNot only is the testing fee waived for qualifying students, but SAT Fee Waivers also provide no-cost Question-And-Answer or Student Answer Service reports and waivers for a number of college application fees.

Family Obligations

Students from low-income backgrounds frequently have family obligations that other students don't. They might share the responsibility of raising younger siblings or caring for elderly relatives. Many are also used to contributing money to the family's income. According to O'Donnell, the choice they make to either move away from home to attend college or continue to live at home and go to school may adversely affect either them, their family, or both.

Once in college, students often face another dilemma,” she says. “If they go to the local college or university and live at home, they often miss out on social connections and the immersive experience that are made living on campus. But if they move away, they have limited money to travel back and forth to home.

Resources to Help:

  • Attending College as a Student-ParentWith almost 5 million college students raising children, this guide provides much-needed advice and resources for student-parents.
  • Creating an Academic PlanScottsdale Community College explains the process of creating an academic plan with your school, factoring in outside commitments and tracking progress towards a degree.
  • School-Life Balance TipsA helpful guide offering tips and advice for students juggling school and other commitments like family and work, provided by Johns Hopkins University.

Sense of Belonging

According to O'Donnell, a real concern for low-income students is the idea that no matter hard they work, they don't belong with their peers who come from other backgrounds.

On a socio-emotional level, students share that they suffer from imposter syndrome, that even though they have rightfully earned their spot as a college scholar, they don't feel like they belong,” she says. “For all of these reasons students need to raise their hand before day one of class and ask for the help they need to adapt to the new space.

Resources to Help:

  • College Transitional ClassesOffered at many colleges and universities around the nation, programs like this one at the University of California, Davis help low-income students make a smooth college transition.
  • On-Campus Support GroupsCheck your campus for support programs, like the CARE program for single parents and CAFYES program for former foster youth at Sierra College.
  • Social Belonging for College Students AssessmentA quick online survey and reflection exercise that many colleges and universities utilize during student orientation to help determine how to best support underserved students.

5 Tips for Success as a Low-Income Student

Potential low-income scholars can follow these steps to lay out a plan for success, both in applying to colleges and completing a degree. Expert Theresa O'Donnell offers her advice below:

  1. Ask for help early.
    Students need to seek assistance from the very start. If a student is even considering the idea of going to college, he or she should find an academic counselor in the middle or high school right away. Many programs that help students gain access to college start early, as does meeting the criteria for GPAs, standardized tests, application deadlines, and accelerated degree programs (see below).Web resources like KnowHow2Go from the American Council on Education can help students find the right questions to ask. They can also provide answers and planning strategies. Senior year of high school should include many family discussions so that everyone is informed of your wishes and options as you begin considering colleges through being admitted and accepted,” O'Donnell says. “Also, do not forget to complete the FAFSA every year to maintain loans and grants.
  2. When considering colleges, research the graduation rates.
    Students should check out College Scorecard, a U.S. Department of Education resource that allows students to search school according to varying criteria. The site shares a variety of useful information, from the percentage of students paying down their debt–a good sign that they have a quality education that provided them with a job that financially supports them, O'Donnell says–and the percentage of students who receive federal loans. She suggests finding schools with:
    • A high graduation rate
    • Graduates who are paying down their loans
    • A large number of students who have utilized federal financial aid. These factors indicate that a school offers “bang-for-your-buck” for low-income scholars. Another factor O'Donnell suggests to look at is the number of students who earn their degree within 6 years of enrolling. We encourage students to seek schools with a 70 percent or higher overall 6-year graduation rate. This means that within six years of enrolling, 70 percent or more full-time students will graduate with a bachelor's degree from that institution. The current national average is 59 percent.
  3. Check out all options, and be realistic about cost.
    According to O'Donnell, the cost of college is often a major factor why low-income students do not complete degrees, and therefore should be considered heavily. Four-year universities are not always the best option, and are never the only option. For-profit universities sometimes don't offer credits that transfer easily. Many for-profit schools grant credit and degrees that will not transfer to other schools. If students plan on starting at one school and transferring to another, a much better plan is to start at a low-cost community college. They often have agreements with the major colleges and universities in that state so that credits transfer smoothly, and students graduate on time with minimal debt.
  4. Upon acceptance, plan for success and understand your aid.
    According to O'Donnell, students who are low-income should ask their school about summer bridge programs to acclimate to campus life before school begins. They can start with their academic adviser who can connect them to helpful campus services. Once on campus, be sure to meet with an academic adviser each semester as they can be a huge resource in helping you stay on track to graduate in four years and help consider taking advantage of other opportunities (e.g., internships, study abroad, a double major or minor, etc.). It's also important to understand the aid that you've received and know when it renews and what you need to do to keep receiving it.
  5. Find support and a network.
    There are low-income students on every campus, all over the country. Reach out and find others like you so that you don't feel alone. Celebrate each other's successes and challenges. Ask your academic advisor for the plug-in or check out clubs on-campus. All students should utilize the campus writing center, office of career services, office of academic advising, career services, and the counseling center starting their first year to set themselves up for academic, career, and socio-emotional success.

College Degrees: Fast Routes to Financial Stability

No matter how you spin it, college is expensive. Even with all the scholarships and aid one can find, at some point a student is spending time in class that they could be spending earning a wage in a career–and not paying for tuition, books, housing, etc. There are some ways that students can save time, and therefore money, and get out with a degree quickly.

Accelerated Degree Programs

Accelerated degree programs are designed to make a student's college career as efficient as possible. These types of programs may be a good fit for organized students who can dedicate their time completely to earning a degree in a short amount of time. They may not be as well-suited for students who are juggling family and work at the same time as school.

Dual Credit High School Courses

Students can enroll in some high school courses that give them credit for college. This allows students to take courses for free before they begin secondary school, resulting in lower costs and few courses to take. But be sure to check that dual enrollment classes offered by your school meet all technical requirements.

Additional Resources for Low-Income Students

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