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Why colleges for poor students cost more

This story about need-based financial aid was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.  

MILWAUKEE — Sh’Tejah Ward needed to come up with $8,651 to pay the rest of her fall semester bill for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be able to return in the spring. Looking for answers, she stopped by the school’s financial aid office one October afternoon and succinctly summed up her situation to an adviser: “I’m lost.” 

Ward barely spoke for the rest of the meeting. She nodded along and grew increasingly overwhelmed as the adviser walked her through her options.

They were not promising. Ward had already received all the federal grant money she could get. The roughly $1.4 million in need-based financial aid the school can distribute among its nearly 25,000 undergraduates was long gone. So too was nearly all of the roughly $5.4 million in scholarships, most of which had at least some academic requirements attached. Still, Ward watched attentively as she was shown how to use the school’s scholarship portal and how to find information on private loan providers once she maxed out her federal ones. 

Sh’Tejah Ward works in the Golda Meir Library on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus. She graduated from high school in 2019, after getting straight A’s for her final three semesters. She enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee but didn’t get enough financial aid to cover everything.

Stepping into the hallway after the meeting, Ward could no longer hold back her tears. The way she saw it, she had two options: cobble together enough loans to get her through her freshman year — likely the first of many times she would have to borrow — or drop out. She wondered how to tell her mother, who wanted her to be the first in the family to get a degree.

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