Students of Low-Income Background Seek Education

When John Brown started his university in the shadow of the Ozarks, he sought to provide quality education for students who could not afford it. However, according to a study by Opportunity Insights, rising tuition costs are limiting access and increasing stress for promising students.

According to the New York Times, Opportunity Insights, previously the Equality of Opportunity Project, examined economic diversity at universities across the United States. Researchers looked at the family income levels, the percentage of students from each income level and the median student income after graduation for John Brown University in order to create an overall mobility index “representing the likelihood that a student at John Brown moved up two or more income quintiles.” Out of all Arkansas colleges, JBU ranked 31 out of 34 for social mobility.

The lack of mobility frustrates Evelyn Morgan, sophomore art and illustration major, who also participates in JBU’s work-study program. “I can personally say that it’s been a difficult time, just money-wise, for me to be here and justify the cost. Seeing after I graduate and what financial situation I’m going to be in and knowing that I’m not just having my parents pay for everything and I’m not really coming from a background that’s allowing me to come out of school debt-free,” Morgan said. “As an art student, I haven’t really found many opportunities to really come out of this with less debt. Finding ways to pay for school has been tough and it’s kind of a struggle that I am continuing to justify like ‘I’m here and it’s worth all of this money that I’m paying for the education that I’m getting.’”

The study also examined the economic breakdown of the student population. For students from the top 1%, whose “families … made about $630,000 or more per year,” 3.7% of students fall into this income bracket, ranking JBU third amongst Arkansas colleges. Forty percent of students are from the top fifth, while only 7.2% of students come from the bottom fifth of the income bracket, whose families make “about $20,000 or less per year.”

These statistics do not surprise David Burney, director of financial aid at JBU, who harkened back to the mission of the university. “The founder’s primary goal was to give students the opportunity to get a degree if that’s what they wanted,” Burney said. “JBU is really blessed to have a mix of every student population …We were running right around 27-28% qualify for the Pell Grant and so [those] would be considered to be the neediest of the needy.  And we literally have quartiles in every socio-economic group.”

As a Pell Grant recipient, Hannah Means, senior nursing major, also works as a CNA in a local nursing home and holds a work-study position in the JBU nursing department. “[The Pell Grant] provides a little extra money that isn’t covered,” Means said. “Whenever you have more help behind you, at least for me, financially, so you don’t have to worry about working full-time all the time and you know that there’s something helping you cover that, you’re able to spend more time in your studies. It helps with peace of mind.”

Means appreciates her family’s support during the college years. “I have family members that always check up on me, especially my parents, asking how I’m doing. They help in some little ways like with my phone bill,” Means said. “Even though they’re not able to support me financially with the rest of school, they’re able to help me figure things out.”

The financial aid offered through JBU also helps Means to continue her education. “For one of the scholarships I got from the King Foundation … my advisor said, ‘Hey you should apply for this,’” Means said. “I was still stressing about money until I got here, and it’s still on the more expensive side of things, but they do all that they can. They are definitely a lot more helpful and provide a lot more than maybe other colleges do. They have a lot of resources that are worth the money as well.”

In distributing aid, JBU uses information from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, examining family size, cost of living and other factors. JBU also offers merit-based scholarships for art, sports and academics. “That’s what you really see that the tension is. JBU wants to be able to serve all student populations well, so not pricing ourselves out of the middle-income families that are right above Pell range that are looking for other resources to pay for their education, as well as first-gen students who don’t have a lot of experience,” Burney said. “It’s really a balance in the tension of how to offer scholarships and financial aid and financial services to the entire student body.”

In order to decrease the tension and stress for students across all income-levels, Burney shared hopeful news for new tuition levels for the 2020-2021 school year. “The new tuition for 2020 is going to be released here in the next couple of weeks, and I do know it’s the lowest increase that we have had,” Burney said. “It’s been the lowest increase of tuition, and that is one of the areas from cut costs, eliminating additional expenses and then also the Next Century campaign, our campaigns for not only funded and endowed scholarships but also anytime that we can endow building or programs.”

“The increase in the tuition does not go to the buildings. It goes for things like cost of living, insurance costs for the professors and staff. It literally goes back into the budget model just to make things sustainable,” Burney said. “Being cognizant of that, JBU has really pressed into a lot of diligent people making cuts, just trying to be diligent with the resources that we have.”

Looking at previous tuition levels, the Opportunity Insights study showed a decreasing level of access for low-income students from the classes of 2005 to 2013. Access, or admission, to JBU for students from the bottom 60% of incomes had a peak at about 45% for the class of 2006, but in 2013, it hit a low of about 20%. However, the percentage of students from the top 1% remained relatively stable around 1% to 3% during that decade. 

Currently, almost half of students, about 47%, come from households making less than $80,000 per year, according to JBU Financial Aid. A fourth of students come from a household that makes less than $40,000 a year.

Working to overcome the barriers that this 25% faces, Student Support Services offers academic support and mentorship for students from low-income backgrounds, along with first-generation students and students with documented disabilities.

Kyle Ireland, director of SSS, desires to help students reach their goals through one-on-one advising. “Those meetings are talking about classes, coursework, any concerns they have and also having students reflect and think about long-term and short-term goals, academically, vocationally and personally,” Ireland said. “We try to create a hierarchy so that if they have this long-term goal of becoming a pediatrician, for instance, then this semester they have two or three biology classes and a math class. So, what do you want to accomplish this semester that if you meet that goal, you’ll be closer to that long-term goal? Then we have a plan of action: so, what are you going to actually do?”

As a part of the TRIO grant from the U.S. Department of Education, SSS also provides guidance for students navigating the system of financial aid. “We also are required by the government to have them go through workshops about the money that they are using to pay for college. It’s similar to a loan orientation to even be able to take out loans,” Ireland said. “It talks about student loans. It talks about grants. It talks about scholarships. What does it look like? How does the government look at what your parents make or what you make and determine what your need is—just educating them on those processes because everyone will fill out a FASFA, but we sometimes don’t even know what that means.”

Ultimately, Ireland wants students to be successful and to believe in their abilities. “I like the idea that we are able to influence someone that maybe thought, ‘This isn’t something I can do,’ and be able to change their mind based on study skills or what it looks like to be a better time manager. Things like that which are non-cognitive abilities because we don’t admit students to JBU who aren’t capable,” Ireland said. “It’s just tough when you call home and say, ‘It’s really been a rough week,’ and your parents are like, ‘I don’t understand. I don’t get how that’s difficult. I work 10-hour shifts.’”

The financial aid office also seeks to come alongside students of low-income backgrounds, taking into consideration individual circumstances. “One of the things that we have really tried to press into over the last couple of years is also to remain open to whenever a student contacts the financial aid office and says the FASFA isn’t really a great representation of my family’s ability to pay,” Burney said. “We’ve had donors step up to give more, the institution has tried to focus more money, and really we’ve seen the ability to support our students whenever they say, ‘My dad just lost his job,’ or ‘These are the medical circumstances of my family.’ Just trying to remain sensitive to that while the FASFA application is great and serves variety purposes, conversations are really important with students and their families to learn what is going on.”

This individualized support has helped Johnnie Kramer, senior kinesiology and finance double major, feel more empowered. Kramer works the Walton Lifetime Health Complex as a part of JBU’s work-study program. “It’s been really nice, especially working at the health complex because I get to get some of my homework done while getting paid … Obviously, I have to do my job, which is cleaning towels and equipment and helping members, but it’s really nice to have the opportunity to get paid at a very steady rate without it being taxed very much,” Kramer said. “You can either put it toward tuition or your checking account. This semester I actually have it put toward my checking account, which helps with buying groceries and stuff.”

Despite financial frustrations, Morgan feels that JBU is a welcoming place of students of all economic backgrounds. “I think that has to do with our common faith. Most people on campus have that in common, Morgan said. “That seems to be more of a unifier and allows us to look past whatever social status we come from.”