This story was co-published with The Chronicle of Higher Education.
By Marian Wang, ProPublica
Shauniqua Epps was the sort of student whom so many colleges say they want.
She was a high achiever, graduating from high school with a 3.8 GPA and ranking among the top students in her class. She served as secretary, then president, of the student government. She played varsity basketball and softball. Her high-school guidance counselor, in a letter of recommendation, wrote that Ms. Epps was "an unusual young lady" with "both drive and determination."
Ms. Epps, 19, was also needy.
Her family lives in subsidized housing in South Philadelphia, and her father died when she was in third grade. Her mother is on Social Security disability, which provides the family $698 a month, records show. Neither of her parents finished high school.
Ms. Epps, who is African-American, made it her goal to be the first in her family to attend college.
"I did volunteering. I did internships. I did great in school. I was always good with people," said Ms. Epps, who has a broad smile and a cheerful manner. "I thought everything was going to go my way."
At first, it looked that way.
Ms. Epps was admitted to three colleges, all public institutions in Pennsylvania. She was awarded the maximum Pell Grant, federal funds intended for needy students. She also qualified for the maximum state grant for needy Pennsylvania students.
None of the three colleges gave her a single dollar of aid.
To attend her dream college, Lincoln University, Ms. Epps would have had to come up with about $4,000 per year, after maxing out on federal loans—close to half of what her mother receives from Social Security. It was money her family didn't have, she said.
Public colleges and universities were generally founded and financed to give students in their states access to an affordable college education. They have long served as a vital pathway for students from modest means and those who are the first in their families to attend college.
But many public universities, faced with their own financial shortfalls, are increasingly leaving low-income students behind—including strivers like Ms. Epps.
It's not just that colleges are continuously pushing up sticker prices. Public universities have also been shifting their aid, giving less to the poorest students and more to the wealthiest.