The Higher Ed Arms Race: How the High-Tuition High-Aid Model Shuts Out Low-Income Students

Blog Post
May 8, 2013

Yesterday, the New America Foundation's Education Policy Program released "Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind." Author Stephen Burd reveals a full-fledged "financial aid arms-race" between private colleges and universities, and a burgeoning one among publics as well. Schools adopt a "high-tuition, high-aid” model that allows them to attract wealthy and high-achieving students to boost their rankings with significant amounts of merit aid – money that could have instead been directed to need-based aid for low-income students. That means that the neediest students are left with an impossibly high tuition bill.

Burd uses data, many of which are available through our Federal Education Budget Project database, on Pell Grant enrollment and net price for the lowest-income students at thousands of individual colleges. The analysis shows that hundreds of public and private non-profit colleges expect the neediest students to pay an annual amount that is equal to or even more than their families' entire yearly earnings. As a result, these students are left with little choice but to take on heavy debt loads or to behave in ways that are demonstrated to reduce the likelihood of earning their degrees, such as working full-time while enrolled or dropping out until they can afford to return. Only a few dozen exclusive colleges meet the full financial need of the lowest-income students they enroll. Nearly two-thirds of the private institutions analyzed charge students from the lowest-income families, those making $30,000 or less annually, a net price of over $15,000 a year.

Many private colleges have small endowments, making it extremely difficult for them to provide adequate support to those students with the greatest need. According to the report, the poorest schools are often the ones that enroll the largest share of federal Pell Grant recipients, but they charge these students high net prices because of their own limited resources. At the same time, many of these institutions provide deep tuition discounts to wealthier students to attract those high-achieving students to the school.

This is not just a question of institutional wealth, though. Some of the country's most prosperous private colleges are, in fact, the stingiest with need-based aid. These institutions tend to use their institutional financial aid as a competitive tool to reel in the top – and the most affluent – students to help them climb the U.S. News & World Report rankings and maximize their revenue.

We created an interactive graphic that groups institutions into four categories based on whether they charge low-income students a high or low tuition and whether they enroll a high or low percentage of Pell recipients. We also used data from the Department of Education, FEBP, and The Chronicle of Higher Education to determine the number of endowment dollars available per student.

We can see from this graphic, for instance, that Washington & Lee University enrolls a very low proportion of Pell students (eight percent) and charges the lowest-income students over $14,000 a year in tuition after Pell Grants and financial aid. That’s an average tuition bill of over half of a family’s total income. What's worse is that Washington & Lee has a relatively large endowment of around $450,000 per student. 

While the problem is not as extreme among public universities, it is rapidly getting worse. As more states cut funding for their higher education systems, public colleges are increasingly adopting the enrollment management tactics of their private college counterparts - to the detriment of low-income and working-class students alike.

In many states, public institutions are following the same high-tuition, high-aid model – and in some cases, including in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, the neediest students are facing net prices more than double what they are charged in low-tuition states such as North Carolina. At Penn State University, for example, in-state students attending the university's flagship campus in University Park pay about $16,000 in tuition and fees annually, which is double the average tuition charged at all national public four-year colleges and universities examined in his paper. Despite the fact that Penn State spends nearly $14 million a year on institutional aid, its lowest-income in-state students pay an average net price of nearly $17,000, the fifth-highest of any public institution this report examines. In other words, Penn State's neediest students do not appear to be getting any discount relative to other students at all. At the same time, about 6 percent of the school's first-time freshmen received an average of $3,800 in so-called "merit aid" in 2010-11.

Schools like Penn State seem to be using their pricing autonomy to gain an advantage as they fiercely compete for the students they most desire: the "best and brightest" students - and the wealthiest. These actions fly in the face of national goals to increase access to higher education and help more students earn high-quality degrees.

Over the past several decades, a powerful enrollment management industry has emerged to show colleges how they can use their institutional aid strategically in the pursuit of high-achieving and affluent students. And worse yet, there is compelling evidence to suggest that many schools are engaged in an elaborate shell game: using Pell Grants, the primary source of federal aid for low-income students, to supplant institutional aid they would have provided to financially needy students otherwise, and then shifting these funds to help recruit wealthier students. This is one reason that, even after historic increases in Pell Grant funding, the college-going gap between low-income students and their wealthier counterparts remains as wide as ever.