Ted Long, president of Elizabethtown College, a school of 1,600 students in central Pennsylvania, has seen many students go from economic struggle to success thanks to higher education. "It is a way for them to essentially move up the ladder compared to their parents," he says of lower-income students. "We have an alumnus in New York who is already vice president for an investment company, managing the energy portfolio, and he's supervising folks from Stanford and Harvard. He came from an ordinary background. There are stories like that all the time."
Such anecdotal evidence of the power of a degree is now backed by data from the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania (AICUP), which surveyed 16,000 graduates of the Class of 1999 five years after their graduation from 46 Pennsylvania private colleges and universities. The survey returned findings on several areas, but clearly showed that low-income students (those who received Pell Grants) enjoyed similar rates of success five years out of college as those who came from wealthier backgrounds. "This is what we all hope that education will do," says Don Francis, president of AICUP. "What the data is showing is that education is leveling the playing field for people from different socio-economic categories."
With interest rates on student loans rising, individuals from private colleges are concerned about students from low-income backgrounds. Elizabethtown, for one, is investing $20 million in financial aid for the 2006-07 academic year. "Students take on a lot of debt, frequently they work, and our job I think is to make it as reasonable as possible," says Long. Now there's hard evidence to prove that fight is worthwhile.
A full copy of the AICUP report is available at www.aicup.org. -C.M.F.