A study by the Iowa Board of Regents confirms a trend that troubles many financial aid experts: Students from low income families on average accept less aid than they deserve, while higher-income students generally take more than they need.
The difference, the study suggests, revolves around the students' willingness to go into debt to finance their educations: While wealthier families would rather take on loans to lower what they are expected to pay, low-income students are loathe to do so, and prefer to take on additional jobs to pay their college bills, despite significant academic and personal cost.
A report  of the study was presented to the regents on Monday by the board's Education and Student Affairs Committee. It divided undergraduates at Iowa's three major universities into seven socioeconomic categories, ranging from below $15,000 in annual family income to above $90,000, and examined their financial need and how much aid they actually received.
At Iowa State University, for instance, students from families with an average income below $15,000 qualified for $13,020 in financial aid, the full cost of attending the university. But on average, they accepted $9,847 in financial aid, leaving them more than $3,000 short of the cost of covering their college costs. Students whose families earned more than $90,000 a year had average need of $1,186, but accepted financial aid of $7,660. The pattern was generally consistent at all three universities.
Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, says the Iowa statistics are consistent with those in several other states he has studied. "Low-income kids look at educational debt that they've never seen before, and back away from accepting the aid that's offered," he says.
The problem is compounded, he notes, because if students take off-campus jobs instead of loans, the income they receive counts against them when the federal government recalculates the amount they are expected to contribute the following semester or year. "If this snowballs, a student can squeeze him or herself out of a Pell Grant by not having taken the loans," Mortensen says. Students' academic work may also suffer because of the time demands of their jobs.
As to why the report shows students from higher-income families receiving more aid than the government suggests they need, Iowa college officials attributed the situation in part to the fact that the students are receiving scholarships and grants that are based on merit instead of need.