Determined students use Pell grant to graduate almost debt free
By Charles Hallman
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler recently announced a new four-year initiative to improve keeping low-income students in college. “We intend to lower the barriers for low-income students to attend the U and obtain their degrees,” said Kaler in a January 16 press release.
According to school officials, research shows that low-income students are more likely to drop out of school or delay their degree work due to finances. Approximately 21 percent of U of M undergraduate freshmen (over 1,100) are Pell grant recipients — money from the U.S. government that provides for students to pay for college based on financial need.
The MSR last week sat down with four first-year U of M students and Pell grant recipients. Each freshman admitted that without it the grant and other such assistance as the President’s Emerging Scholars (PES) Program established last year — in which most participants are low-income students of color or first-generation students — it would have been difficult for them to pursue their higher education goals.
Nanatharath came to U.S. with her mother from Laos at age seven to rejoin her father, who migrated earlier. “English was not my first language. It was kind of hard, but my parents always [asked] what am I going to do if I don’t go to college. I knew that I wanted to continue my education as high and as far as I could.
“I worked hard [to go] to college,” recalled the 18-year-old Nantharath, who graduated from Minneapolis North High School. Nonetheless, not going to college wasn’t an option for her and her three older siblings. She looked at several schools, including Minnesota, but wondered “how am I going to pay for it?
“I knew I wanted to continue my education after high school. I just had to find a way to get there, even if I don’t get to the schools I want. During my high school years, especially my senior year, I worked hard applying for those scholarships.”
The first-generation, first-year college student, who plans to be a biology major, added, “Part of the reasons I chose to come here [was because] this was the school that offered the most [in financial aid], especially as a student that comes from a low-income [family] and a first-generation [college student]. It makes a lot difference for me.”
Nantharath hopes after graduation to help her family. “I can be able to support them more,” she said. “It was important for my family that I was able to go to college, especially one of the top colleges in the state. Being able to continue [my] higher education is one of their dreams. All of my siblings go to college, and I am the last one. They are really proud.”
He “almost gave up” going to college and was seriously looking at the military, admitted Malik Day, 19. “I was working three jobs while in high school — all were minimum wage — but I didn’t have an opportunity to save a lot of money [for college], because I was the provider for the household.
“My household has six people. I have other brothers and my mom couldn’t work. I’ve [been] doing that since I was 15.”
Instead of joining the armed forces, the Minneapolis Henry High School graduate this year is enrolled in U of M’s Carlson School of Business as a mathematics major with an “actuary science” emphasis. Day said proudly, “The Pell grant helps me a lot. I think it’s very, very important. It’s a huge relief not having to focus on that anymore.”
He emphasized the psychological value of not having to worry about how to pay for college, which “forces you to be held back. I feel it is a huge barrier. Why hold back potential because of money?
“At first, I wanted to go to an HBCU — Howard [University] — but they have limited funding. If I was to go there, I would have to take out $60,000 [in loans] for four years.”
“Money was a big factor. It wasn’t necessarily that without this money I can’t go to college, because I told myself I was going to college no matter what,” said Johnson, 18, who worked two jobs while attending Worthington High School. “I just wanted to be able to afford wherever I went.
“Do I go to the U of M, or do I stay back in my hometown and go to the technical college there?” she had asked herself. “I’m the first person in my family to go to college. My
mother worked full time to support my brother and I. I was on my own to try to figure out how to apply for financial aid and what grants were out there for me.”
Johnson qualified for a Pell grant. She said she also got other scholarship money as well because “my grades were pretty decent.”
“The Pell grant helped out quite a bit — that’s $4,000 I don’t have to pay [back],” she pointed out. When she learned she qualified for aid, “It was nice to show [her mother] my financial aid package. She gives me support, but it’s nice that she doesn’t have to give that much support.”
“When I received my first financial aid [package], I was hoping that it would be pretty substantial, because I knew the only way I was going to go here [was] if I had a pretty large financial aid package. I couldn’t support myself paying $20,000.”
Being a low-income student isn’t “a barrier [or unwelcome stigma] to me. I’m here at the U just like you,” she said when comparing herself to other students. She plans on a double major in sociology and physical science and a minor in Spanish and leadership, and has plans to attend law school after graduation.
Being low-income also means “you aren’t able to pay thousands of dollars straight out of pocket,” continued Johnson. “I think that the best thing about the financial aid package was for me to decline those loans. This year I’m paying a little bit under $1,000 to go here, and that includes books and stuff like that.
“I still may have to take out a couple of loans, but my goal is to be at least under $15,000 [after graduation]. The financial aid makes you feel a little more at ease, because you don’t have to worry this year. Maybe next year, but this year I’m good.”
She wanted to be a nurse since she was in second grade, but Rose Simon later discovered that biology wasn’t for her. “I’m better with people and not good with science,” said the 19-year-old student, a Hopkins High School graduate. She plans to study family social science with a minor in French at Minnesota.
Simon said her mother once advised her to take “a gap year to get money and save up” after she graduated from Hopkins High School. “I want to go to college and I don’t want to delay myself. I want to keep up with my class, because I knew I had the potential. I just had to keep going — I couldn’t stop.
“I didn’t have time to stop,” she admitted. “I worked three jobs in high school. I didn’t hold myself back in [applying to schools], hoping that I [could] get scholarships and financial aid from them.”
Receiving the Pell grant meant one less thing to worry about for both her and her family, continued Simon. “This semester, perhaps for the first time in five years I didn’t have a job, and it was really nice, because I literally just focused on my schoolwork. I didn’t have to think about how I am going to pay for [college] or I have to have a job… I was just able to really hone in [on] my academics and study. It was so nice, that was the best part for me.”
Being debt-free as much as possible was very important to her, she stated. “That’s one of the reasons why I came here, because I knew that the amount [of financial aid] they were giving me was going to mean that I could probably walk out of this university nearly debt-free compared to someplace else. It was a huge relief for my parents and myself.”
Simon also knew that staying in-state would be financially better than attending a school out of state. “I have friends out in New York, and that was their dream to be in New York — and they probably will be $80,000 in debt. Being here is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, and I’m so grateful and thankful, and feel so privileged to be here.”
Her advice to high-schoolers: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that it’s not a possibility [to attend college]. I don’t care what the teachers tell you in school — just because you are not good in math, that doesn’t mean you are not going to be someone in life.
“Make sure you give yourself that option, because it’s a goal. I know it’s hard work, but once you reach it, it’s so rewarding.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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