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Low-income students in Utah face a barrage of challenges on the path to college

A photo of the SLCC campus.
Brian Albers
The student center on the campus of Salt Lake Community College.

Money might not buy happiness, but it does seem to lead to better student outcomes.

By almost every measure, students from low-income families struggle more than their peers. A new report examining the data in Utah shows wide disparities that begin as early as elementary school.

That ultimately translates to about 20% fewer “economically disadvantaged” students enrolling in and finishing college compared to their wealthier peers. It can become a vicious cycle, as lower education levels typically correlate with lower lifetime earnings.

While low-income students face many barriers, time is the commodity they’re most in need of, said Jim Taggart, president of Ogden-Weber Technical College. Speaking at a panel discussion on the report Thursday, he said less than 18% of students at his school are enrolled full-time. At Salt Lake Community College, it’s less than 10%.

“They're coming to us and they're saying, ‘I don't even have six months, I need to find a higher paying job right now,’” Taggart said, even though some programs are as short as three months.

College leaders say there are resources available to help students and several changes in the works to make programs more flexible and accommodating. But they often go unused, either because of a lack of information or resources. Only 33% of students in Utah complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, for example, which is the second-lowest rate in the country.

Low-income students also tend to sign up for concurrent enrollment courses at lower rates. The classes can be free or low-cost but may require additional books or time after school that some students can’t afford.

“It's like a good news, bad news joke to me because we have the things that would help them,” said Utah Board of Higher Education Chair Lisa Michele Church.

Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College, said she’d like to see College Access Advisors expanded across the state. They are recent college graduates who help students and their parents understand enrollment, scholarships and the financial aid options that are available. There are advisors in 55 schools currently, with another 25 expected to join by the fall.

She also mentioned a federal program called Trio, which provides intensive support services for about 120 students. A case manager guides them through their classes and connects them with tutors or helps pay for child care centers and public transit passes.

If that model could be implemented across the institution, “completion rates would soar,” she said, but it would also be expensive. Without those kinds of services, students tend to drop out, perhaps with the intention of returning. But they often leave and never come back.

“There's a really wide off-ramp and there's a really skinny on-ramp,” Huftalin said. “And I think we need to narrow that off-ramp and keep them here as long as possible.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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