The Issues: College Affordability and Access

Education professor Stefani Relles on how paying for a college education is progressively harder, especially for low-income and minority students.


By Greg Lacour

Nationally, the rising cost of college tuition is barring more and more low-income and minority students from the opportunity to earn a degree and saddling students who manage to pay for their educations with staggering amounts of student loan debt. Despite the U.S. government’s efforts to increase access and lessen debt loads — through expansion of the Pell Grant program, tax credits, and income-based loan repayment programs — the problem is worsening. The average student debt load has nearly tripled since 1992, and low-income students are less likely now to enroll in college immediately after high school than in 2008.

Our expert

Stefani Relles is an assistant professor in UNLV’s department of educational psychology and higher education. Her work focuses on college readiness and postsecondary remediation policy. She conducts ethnographic research to explore the influence of higher education policies on college access, persistence, and degree completion for low-income and minority students. Relles, who began teaching at UNLV in fall 2013, earned her Ph.D. in urban education policy from the University of Southern California in 2013.

A few facts

  • At public and nonprofit colleges in 2014, seven in 10 graduating seniors had student loans at an average of $28,950, according to the Institute for College Access & Affordability. By comparison, UNLV students fared well in the study at an average $18,542.
  • The percentage of students from low-income families who enroll in college immediately after graduation from high school has declined from 56 percent in 2008 to 46 percent now.
  • The odds of earning a bachelor’s degree depend largely on economic class. Just 9 percent of students from the lowest income quartile graduate with a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared to 77 percent for the top income quartile.
  • UNLV’s Financial Aid office is disbursing more money every year, displaying rising student need. In the 2012-13 school year, the office disbursed $218 million in overall aid, $126 million of that in federal student loans. In 2014-15, aid totaled $232 million and $131 million in federal loans. The numbers so far for 2015-16 are identical, said Julie Askins, associate director for client services, so year-end totals likely will climb.

Why this matters

The idea that every American child has equal opportunity to a quality education is a myth.

“Higher education inherits the high school achievement gap,” Relles said. “The data show that educational achievement is skewed by income, linguistic background, gender and other factors. We know we do not provide equal educational opportunity.”

Why have colleges and universities raised tuition so much?

“We’re no longer paying through taxes what it takes to sustain higher educational institutions,” she said. “Knowledge is a public resource, like water and electricity. The money needs to come from somewhere. It would seem that higher education is something that people have lost the willingness to pay for through taxes.” In Nevada in particular, she said, the tax structure has left education more susceptible to economic hardships. “It’s a function of a state that’s decided not to pay income tax..”

What’s the draw of for-profit colleges and universities?

At public institutions, budgets for student recruitment and marketing are limited and sometimes seen as discretionary. “It’s much easier for for-profit universities to recruit students because they put money into recruitment … the for-profits are particularly good at wooing students.”

How do states solve this problem?

Low-income students’ preparedness for college depends largely on the quality of their K-12 school system, Relles said, so K-12 public education reform is a must. For low-income students to be able to afford college, federal and state government will have to expand and improve options targeting those students in particular. “So rethinking the way we give out money,” she said, “is an important piece of reforming the way these particular groups of students accumulate debt.”

Read this article on the UNLV Website.

Holmes Scholars: Representing the Underrepresented Well

Sherry Tuliwa McKnight, doctoral student in the Department of Teaching and Learning, has quite a diverse educational background. And being designated as one of three Holmes Scholars at UNLV continues to distinguish her as she completes her doctoral studies.

McKnight transferred to UNLV in 2004 after receiving her associate’s degree in Liberal Arts. Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in African American History and in 2008, she cites her son as her inspiration to further her education: “My son encouraged me to join him in graduate school. When I graduated with my master’s in December 2012, my son received his Ph.D. at the same graduation ceremony. Of course, he also wanted his mother to change the family tradition and complete a Ph.D. as well.”

In 2013 McKnight began the Ph.D. in Career and Technical Education and Post-Secondary Education (CTPE) degree program; her dissertation work centers on the potential role of stereotype threat in African American females’ pursuit of graduate education. While helping other adults that were returning to the University for a graduate degree in the CTPE program, she was nominated as a Holmes Scholar.

The Holmes Scholar program, which began in 1991, was designed for historically underrepresented individuals at various colleges and universities in the United States. The program is sponsored by the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE). Research indicates a tremendous need for retention, progression, and completion of graduate degrees for underrepresented students in the higher education system. McKnight is honored to be a UNLV student who is part of breaking the historical cycle that often holds back underrepresented students in higher education.

Holmes Scholars serve a three-year term, participate in the AACTE Annual Meeting each year, and attend at least two other conferences and/or symposiums offered by the Holmes Scholar Organization. After completing her work as a Holmes Scholar, McKnight plans on continuing making contributions in the local community and beyond.

Additional information regarding the Holmes Scholars program may be found at the AACTE website.