Hard Lessons in Education Funding


Toward the end of the 2007 fall semester, Erin Jackson went from tears of joy to tears of sorrow when she was forced to withdraw from Howard University, her dream school, after only one semester of studies.

Her financial aid package included a Federal Pell Grant, a need-based grant for low-income students, and a Stafford loan, which is distributed to most students regardless of credit worthiness. They covered tuition but did not provide the Cincinnati native enough money to pay for the dorm where freshmen are required to live.

Also included in her package was a $20,000 Federal Parent PLUS loan, but no one in her family was eligible for the fixed-rate loan. Despite her mother having lost her job, Jackson was still ineligible for Howard’s need-based institutional aid because her expected family contribution, a measure of the family’s financial strength used to determine the amount of federal financial aid to reward, was too high.

“I was distraught. I’d worked so hard all my life to get into the school of my choice, and now I was realizing that it just wasn’t enough,” says Jackson, who, in search of financial support, launched a letter-writing campaign to alumnae and school officials. “I just wanted to be heard.”

For too many low-income, first-generation college students like Jackson, the newly opened door to higher education can be a revolving one. These students were nearly four times more likely to leave college after the first year, compared to students who had neither of these risk factors, according to the Pell Institute’s 2008 report “Moving Beyond Access“.

Jackson’s letter-writing campaign was successful, and the art major and aspiring fashion designer was allowed to register and attend classes. She worked at DSW, a shoe retailer, part time and joined a tuition-reimbursement ROTC program that would pay her tuition for three years. But she still had a $3,386 balance to pay before she could re-enroll for the spring semester and accept the ROTC scholarship.

“At first [I thought,] I can do it. [But with time], I got tired, my grades started to slip, my hair fell out, and there were points where I did not sleep for hours,” says the 20-year-old who had  a 3.0 GPA at her college prep high school and managed to keep it at Howard, despite her hardships. “There was always something in the back of my head saying, you still need to pay for this. You might not be here next semester.”