U Study Shows Barriers Economically Disadvantaged Students Face in Higher Education


Adam Fondren

The Block U on the University of Utah Campus in Salt Lake City, Utah on July 12, 2017. (Photo by Adam Fondren | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Andrew Christiansen, Online Managing Editor


A recent Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute study on economically disadvantaged students in Utah’s higher education system shows the close correlation between income level and educational attainment and the barriers some Utahns face in pursuing higher education and improving their income level.

Economically disadvantaged students face many barriers including being more likely to work more hours per week, attend college part-time, delay enrollment, have children and family responsibilities, be a first-generation college student, be less likely to engage in academic and social experiences and utilize support services, according to the report.

(Courtesy of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute)

Economic disadvantage is measured in various ways, but the report’s primary focus is on an individual’s family income from childhood, measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch in K-12.

Deylan Gudiel, a transfer student from Brigham Young University-Hawaii who is starting at the University of Utah this fall, was eligible for free or reduced-price lunch growing up and is Pell Grant eligible.

“I think one of the most difficult things about being economically disadvantaged is seeing how all of your peers are able to progress so much faster and easier than you because of their privilege and are praised for doing so,” Gudiel said in an email interview. “It can be hard not to fall into comparison or feeling like you’re falling behind.”

Gudiel said he’s always worked while being a full-time student, which took time away from studying.

“I’ve done school part-time, full-time” he said. “I’ve taken months, even a year off to help family, work, save money, whatever I needed to do.”

Barriers to FAFSA

The University Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid offers scholarships based on financial need, requiring students to fill out a Free Application for Student Aid to qualify. FAFSA completion rates in Utah are some of the lowest in the country, according to Andrea Thomas Brandley, the research associate who conducted the study. The report showed that just 52.6% of Utah’s higher education students completed FAFSA in 2016 and that number went down to 41.8% of students in 2021.

Gudiel said FAFSA is overly complicated to fill out and not catered towards low-income people, and he isn’t surprised how low FAFSA completion rates are. He noted that some people may not even own computers or have access to Wi-Fi.

“It was difficult for me as someone who has a high GPA and does well in school and is fluent in English — I can’t imagine how it would be for students in different situations,” he said.

(Courtesy of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute)

Anthony P. Jones, executive director of scholarships and financial aid, said it’s a complicated and layered issue, but low and declining FAFSA completion rates in Utah are puzzling given years of awareness campaigns and efforts to streamline the FAFSA process.

“Although there have been claims that the complexity of the application form is a barrier, gains over the last decade in simplifying the form and the application process reduce the veracity of such claims,” Jones said.

He noted examples of advances made in recent years including making the FAFSA electronic and reducing the number of questions through smart logic, which skips irrelevant questions based on applicant answers.

Jones said a substantial portion of the college’s outreach and awareness efforts are with the Utah System of Higher Education, which coordinates workshops at high schools statewide to help complete the form, as well as other scholarship and financial aid options.

Benefits of Education

There are many individual benefits to pursuing higher education such as higher earnings, better economic mobility, educational activities and being more likely to teach their children, Brandley said.

“There’s an intergenerational component that we could improve society long term through generations,” Brandley said.

Beyond individual benefits, Brandley said the societal benefits are clear and robust. The report notes unemployment rates and poverty rates decline with increasing years of education, while median earnings and economic mobility rise.

(Courtesy of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute)

“Not only can we improve the lives of a fairly large portion of college students, but also then extend that throughout the state,” she said.

Gudiel said his advice to other economically disadvantaged students is to not compare themselves to anyone else’s progression or academic timeline.

“You are doing the best you can with the resources at your disposal, and even if it takes you 10 years to get your degree, it doesn’t mean you’re behind [or] less intelligent,” Gudiel said. “[It] means you had to have the dedication and resilience to overcome a system that is designed against you in order to elevate your life, break from a cycle of poverty, and achieve a brighter future for yourself and your family.”


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