College financial aid shows tilt to the affluent

Gail MarksJarvis
Chicago Tribune

Are you getting gouged on college?

If you come from a relatively low-income family, there’s a strong chance you are. In fact, you may be subsidizing the education of a student from an affluent family.

Why? Because many colleges, with limited pots of financial aid money, are cutting off the students that need the most help paying for college. Instead, colleges increasingly are using financial aid money to lure more affluent students. This is the finding of a study by the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that used Department of Education data to examine what hundreds of colleges are charging students of various incomes.

The finding, of course, is good news for affluent students from families that haven’t been able to save enough to pay the astronomical cost of college. With costs of many private colleges around $50,000 a year, and home-state public universities approaching $25,000, even affluent families feel poor when trying to figure out how to pay for college. So doctors, lawyers and a multitude of highly paid professionals are delighted when there are grants and other “merit aid” for their children, who don’t fit the model for financial aid.

But while skyrocketing college costs have become a burden for most American families, poor families are really in trouble, says Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation. Students from families with incomes of $30,000 or less are being required to devote more than half of their income to pay for education at hundreds of colleges, he says.

Studies by other researchers have shown that attending high-quality colleges can be even more important for lower-income students than affluent students. But Burd said that 94 percent of private colleges he examined charge the lowest-income students more than $10,000. There’s a growing trend of charging poor families $15,000 or $25,000. The median is $17,189 for freshmen.

Many private colleges have small endowments, so it’s difficult for them to support students with the greatest need, he said. They may give poor students Pell Grants, which are federal government grants aimed at helping low-income students go to college. But then, rather than devoting the college’s financial aid dollars to poor students so the price of college becomes affordable, the colleges “provide deep discounts to wealthier students, no matter what their academic record.”

As a result, low-income students may take on huge debts or skip a quality college. The maximum Pell Grant is just $5,815.

Burd said college administrators increasingly regard aiding affluent students as a crucial move to ensure the institutions’ survival. During the last five years, about 60 percent of private colleges have increased the price they charge the lowest-income freshmen on an inflation-adjusted basis.

“After all, it’s more profitable for schools to provide five ‘merit’ scholarships of $5,000 each to entice affluent students who will be able to pay the balance — even if they have less-than-stellar grades — than it is to provide a single $25,000 grant to a high-achieving low-income student,” Burd said.