Even in high school, Miguel Agyei worried about how he’d pay for college.
The son of parents who work at a hospital and for UPS, Agyei wanted to go to a school away from his home state of Illinois, but that was too expensive. He instead picked close-by Bradley University and worked during the summer to pay the costs his financial aid didn’t cover.
An athlete who ran track and field, he set the university record in the 60-meter hurdles, but the conference meet that determined who would get athletic scholarships was canceled because of COVID-19. He asked his coaches if there was money to help him buy textbooks, but they said there wasn’t. He had to get help from an advocacy group to pay his rent. To cover his other expenses, he took a job answering phones for a call center for people applying for unemployment benefits.
“It was very, very stressful,” said Agyei, who also took out$25,000 in student loans. “I would go to practice, go to class, work five or six hours, do my homework, go to bed and get up and do it again.”
Meanwhile, he noticed that his bills from the college kept going up.
Bradley is among nearly 700 universities and colleges that have over the past decade raised the prices paid by their lowest-income students morethan the prices paid by their highest-income ones, according to federal data analyzed by The Hechinger Report.(Search the database; it's at the bottom of this article.)
Lower-income students generally still pay less than higher-income ones. But the increase in college costs is falling more heavily on families that are likely the least able to absorb it, as federal and state financial aid fails to keep up with rising prices and colleges shift institutional aid to wealthier families they know can pay at least a part of the tuition.
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“Those increases can really make or break a student staying in college,” said Scott Del Rossi, vice president of college and career success at College Possible, which helps low-income and racial minority students go to and through college. “Do they put it on their credit card? Do they just give up?”
Historic trends in net price by income and other information about universities and colleges nationwide are available in The Hechinger Report’s newly updated Tuition Tracker tool.
At 2 out of 3 colleges and universities where the net price increased for both low- and high-income students over the past decade – that is, the amount paid after discounts and financial aid – it rose faster for the lowest-income students: about 70% versus 27%, on average, the federal data shows.
At 80 universities and colleges, net price more than doubled for the lowest-income students, while at 19 it more than tripled and at 10 it quintupled. At 90, including 14 public universities, net price went up for the lowest-income students but down for the highest-income ones.
More:Dartmouth College eliminating loans from its financial aid packages
Bradley increased the net price for its students from families earning under $30,000 by 36%, more than 3½the rate of increase for its students from families that make $110,000 a year or more.
Asked about the increases, Justin Ball, Bradley’s vice president of enrollment management, said in a statement that “Filtering financial aid packages by a few key metrics alone does not paint the full picture of what can be offered to prospective students.” A university spokeswoman said Ball was not available to elaborate on what that meant.
“As low-income students, we’ve grown to know that this is just the way the system works, and we’ve had to figure out ways to navigate through it,” said Agyei, who ultimately graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in sports communications and got a part-time internship with the Chicago Fire Major League Soccer team.
“You can’t keep raising the price of tuition for students who are barely making it. It’s just not fair.”
Setting off a cycle of debt
As their costs rise, lower-income students become more reliant on student loans to pay for collegebut struggle to repay their debt. Students who got federal Pell grants, which generally go to families earning $40,000 or less, are five times more likely to default on their loans within 12 years of entering college than their higher-income classmates, according to The Institute for College Access and Success. Black students and students who were the first in their families to go to college are also more likely to default.
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The most common reason cited for the trend of rising costs for poorer students – even by several of the colleges themselves – is the intensifying competition for students from high-income families who contribute badly needed revenue and who increasingly expect to receive scholarships and discounts that siphon financial aid from students who meet the federal definition of financial need.
Colleges and universities depend on money coming in, said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, or NASFAA. That’s “the bottom line and the real challenge.” Sophisticated enrollment management strategies, he said, “are driving at one thing: staying afloat.”
Trying to attract students from one socioeconomic category “might decrease them (from)another,” Draeger said. “It would be natural, then, that in this enrollment-constrained environment, the people bearing a disproportionate impact of that would be needy students.”
Montreat College in North Carolina, for example, has “shifted to prioritize merit-based awarding,” said Sara Baughman, the college’s vice president of marketing and communications, using the term for the type of financial aid that goes to students who don’t meet the federal definition of financial need.
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Montreat has increased its net price for its lowest-income students by 42% while lowering it by 16% for its highest-income students.
“There’s only so much money to spread around,” said Duane Bonifer, associate vice president for communications at Monmouth College in Illinois, a small, private liberal arts institution that has raised the net price for its lowest-income students by 57% while lowering it by 3% for its highest-income students.
“For every college in America that’s like Monmouth, which is a lot of them, they’re struggling to deal with the same issue,” Bonifer said. “Your heart breaks that you can’t do more, but there are certain economic realities. You have to be well in order to do good, and that’s a harsh reality for a lot of colleges.” Monmouth has just completed an $80 million fundraising campaign, $11 million of which will go to financial aid, he said.
A conscious shift
Some institutions, such as Wheaton College in Massachusetts, are also consciously trying to move more financial aid to middle- and upper-middle-income families who may also struggle to pay, said Jeff Cutting, Wheaton’s associate vice president for enrollment and strategic analyst. And small colleges’ resources, Cutting pointed out, are finite. Wheaton has increased the net price for its lowest-income students by 35% while lowering it by 17% for its highest-income students, federal figures show.
The proportion of financial aid awarded by Kalamazoo College in Michigan on the basis of merit, as opposed to need, “increasesyearly to keep up with market trends,” said Becca Murphy, its dean of financial aid.
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Federal data shows that the net price for Kalamazoo’s highest-income students fell 5% while rising 26% for its lowest-income students. But Murphy said those figures do not account for money that goes to low-income students who qualify for the Kalamazoo Promise program, under which resident graduates of local public schools get all or part of their tuition paid for. If that money were included, Murphy said, the net price for students from families earning less than $30,000 would decrease by an average of $1,300.
Even after subtracting this amount, however, Kalamazoo’s average net price for its lowest-income students has still increased by about 15% since the Promise program started in the 2015-16 academic year, the federal figures show. Asked whether Murphy would discuss this further, a spokesman did not respond.
The federal data shows that Beloit College in Wisconsin increased the net price for its lowest-income students by 82% while reducing it by 19% for its highest-income students. The college said the information it had submitted to the federal government was incorrectbut did not respond when asked to provide the correct figures.
The net price for the lowest-income students at Connecticut College rose 235% in the past decade, compared with 9% for the highest-income students. The lowest-income students at Oklahoma Wesleyan University saw their net price go up by 69% while it fell by 37% for their highest-income classmates. At Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, the net price rose by 45% for the lowest-income and down by 27% for the highest-income students.
None of the schools responded to repeated requests for comment.
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Some public universities did the same thing
Like these private universities, a few public universities have also raised the net price for their lowest-income students while lowering it for their highest-income ones. At Louisiana State University of Alexandria, net price fell for the highest-income students by 22% while rising 4% for the lowest-income students. After agreeing to speak about this, the university’s vice chancellor for finance and administration stopped responding to requests to schedule a conversation.
One more major reason lower-income students are seeing their net prices rise more quickly than higher-income students is that the principal federal grant meant to help them pay for college hasn’t kept up with the cost of it.
The federal Pell Grant, which mostly goes to families with annual incomes under $40,000, now covers about 25% of college costs, down from 69% in the 1970s, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania.
The maximum Pell Grant this year is $6,895 per student. That’s up 15% since the mid-1970s, when adjusted for inflation, a period during which the inflation-adjusted cost of four-year public colleges rose 157%, the Pell Institute and University of Pennsylvania report. Advocacy and professional organizations including NASFAA have called for the maximum Pell Grant amount to be doubled.
How much will this help college students?The Pell Grant amount will rise by $500 in 2023.
“We’re largely just treading water,” NASFAA’s Draeger said. “Meanwhile, costs keep going up. And when the Pell Grant fails to keep up with inflationary costs, that’s often going to be felt by the neediest students. It’s doubly unfortunate because for those students, price sensitivity doesn’t just impact their choice of where they’ll go to college, it impacts whether they’ll go to college.”
Most states have financial aid programs, too, which in many cases also have not kept pace with the rising cost of college.
In Massachusetts, state-funded financial aid has been cut by 47% in the past two decadeswhen adjusted for inflation, a period during which tuition and fees at public universities and colleges rose by 59%, a new study by the Hildreth Institute shows.
While the largest state grant was enough in 1988 to pay for 80% of the average recipient’s cost for public higher education in the state, the research and policy center says, today it covers only 12%. That leaves the overwhelming majority of students at public four-year universities with $12,000 or more per year in unmet financial need.
Other state financial aid has shifted to increasingly benefit higher-income more than lower-income families.
After an income cap was removed from the principal state scholarship for students in Louisiana, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, the money started flowing disproportionately to the children of higher-income families who are more likely than lower-income ones to live in places with well-resourced public schools whose graduates meet the scholarship’s academic requirements.
The number of recipients from families earning $150,000 or more has increased 56% since 2010, while the number from households with incomes under $15,000 fell by 11%, the Louisiana Board of Regents reported in late 2021. More than twice as many students whose parents make more than $100,000 get the money than students whose parents earn less than $35,000. The median household income in Louisiana is $53,571, the Census Bureau says.
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After criticism of this trend, the Legislature and the governor imposed the solution last year of ordering that the state stop reporting the family income of the scholarship’s recipients.
Among the students who get the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship, which is funded largely by state lottery proceeds, three out of four are from families that make $103,000 a year – nearly twice the state’s median household income – the Arkansas Times reports.
Higher-income students enjoy several other little-known advantages in the financial aid process.
The federal formula used to calculate financial aid, for example, does not take into account home equity and retirement savings, disproportionately benefiting higher-income families, who are increasingly more likely to have such assets. This reduces the amount the formula determines they can afford to pay, thereby awarding them more financial aid, according to researchers from Wellesley College and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, resulting in a subsidy worth thousands of dollars annually for families earning above the national median income.
College junior Chase Brown has been watching her wealthier classmates enjoy advantages like that from the time she was in high school. While she was spending her free time searching for colleges with the most generous financial aid, her friends would tell her, “We’re going to take a flight down to Florida and go on some campus tours.”
Brown ended up at Rice University, one of a minority of universities and colleges where federal data shows the price for the lowest-income students has stayed flat while it’s gone up for the highest-income students. The university’s Rice Investment program guaranteed her free tuition, and she also got some financial aid toward room and board.
Even with that, however, Brown had to work at Target in the summer to cover the rest of her food and housing, plus her other expenses, and at one point balanced three jobs with her studies.
“All those costs pile onto you, while your peers have the resources to pay for them,” said Brown, whose parents are a teacher and a graphic designer and who is majoring in political science and Spanish with plans to get a graduate degree in public policy or political science.
“I used to think the education system was going to close the gaps between social levels. It’s supposed to be the great equalizer,” she said. But “it can put an even bigger divide between those groups.”
That thegap is widening “doesn’t entirely surprise me,” Brown said. “My entire life, my educational experience has been that the very privileged are always getting the benefits and getting a leg up. It reflects on what’s happening everywhere: The poor are getting poorer, and the rich are getting richer.”
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How we did this analysis
The Hechinger Report analyzed the net price by student family income for all 2,300 four-year public and private colleges and universities that participated in the federal financial aid program from 2010-11 through 2020-21 – the most recent academic year for which the figures are available. All of this data was supplied by the institutions directly to IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
The information was further filtered to include only colleges and universities that reported their net prices for both the lowest and highest of five income categories in 2020-21 and had an average overall enrollment of at least 500 over the past decade. Colleges and universities were excluded if they did not report net price data for the lowest or highest income categories in any of the 2011-12 through 2013-14 academic years. That left 1,508 universities and colleges in the sample. For about 50 of those that were missing net price data for the lowest or highest income categories in 2010-11, the change in net price was calculated from the next year for which data was available.
This story aboutcollege costswas produced byThe Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Try itsTuition Trackertool for more information on college prices.
Colleges want wealthier students
“Better prepared students, higher graduation rates and a better chance of attracting students who will later give back to the college — that's the reward system that's in place,” says Van Der Werf, adding that there's no similar reward system for helping low-income students.
Over the last 30 years, tuition costs have soared for a variety of reasons. State funding cuts, expanding administrative staffs, and increased construction and facility costs all play a role. As a result, the average student debt among college graduates is now close to $28,000.Why is it important for low income students to go to college? ›
By getting a college degree, an individual can increase their chances by 53% of moving from the bottom 20% in family income to the middle 20% in family income. Individuals with only a high school diploma make about $17,500 less per year than their college degree counterparts.What are some of the reasons for these increasing tuition rates? ›
- Economic Trends. One of the biggest factors affecting college tuition is the overall economic climate. ...
- It's Taking Students Longer to Graduate. ...
- The Traditional Campus Experience Costs More. ...
- Sticker Price Is Often Much Higher Than Tuition Paid. ...
- Fees Add Up.
They have fewer siblings and more educated parents. Their parents spend more time with them and send them to better quality schools. Their cognitive skills are higher, and they complete more years of schooling.Is it easier for rich people to get into college? ›
Not necessarily. Applicants with financial resources generally have access to experiences and services (i.e. tutoring) that can give them a leg up in the admissions process. In addition, they are sometimes legacies at competitive colleges or have families who have connections at some of these schools, which can help.How does rising tuition affect students? ›
The Effect of Rising Tuition on Students and Graduates
Student loan debt increased 76% since the class of 2000, exceeding the inflation rate by 41%. As of 2021, student loan debt stands at about $1.7 trillion. Graduate student debt contributes a disproportionate amount.
College Tuition Has More Than Doubled Since The 1980s
Figures have found that since the 1980s, the cost of an undergraduate degree has increased by a shocking 213% at public schools, and 129% at private schools. As many of you are already aware, education does not always just end here.
As enrollment increased, there was less money available per student. So, not only is less aid available to schools, but the dollars don't go as far as they used to. As a result, colleges have had to jack up their prices to support the number of students attending.How does low income affect education? ›
A student living in poverty will typically attend underfunded schools with fewer resources for students who are struggling or showing signs of learning disabilities. They might also have trouble getting their homework done, due to a lack of resources at home, or a safe, quiet place to study.
Low-income students often do not apply to these more selective schools because they are uncertain about whether they are suitable for an elite school; because they overestimate how much college is going to cost them; and because parts of the process — such as filling out financial aid forms — present large procedural ...How does low income affect academic performance? ›
These factors often place more stress on a student, which can negatively impact the student's ability to succeed in a school. Students living in poverty often have fewer resources at home to complete homework, study, or engage in activities that helps equip them for success during the school day.What are some factors that influence college tuition rates? ›
- Federal financial aid. Most students need some kind of financial aid to help cover their tuition. ...
- Type of school. ...
- Residency status. ...
- Modality. ...
- Program type. ...
- Military service. ...
- Scholarships. ...
- Employer tuition assistance.
There are a lot of reasons — growing demand, rising financial aid, lower state funding, the exploding cost of administrators, bloated student amenities packages. The most expensive colleges — Columbia, Vassar, Duke — will run you well over $50K a year just for tuition.Why is college tuition rising faster than inflation? ›
The dependence on a highly skilled workforce and growing wage differences between college and high school graduates means more students choose to attend college and drive up the demand for higher education. Higher education prices must increase in response to a growing student population.
The entire system—including admissions, paying for a degree, graduate school, and high-paying employers—is structured in a way that benefits those at the top. People with wealth are most likely to enroll in higher education, have the resources to pay for it, and pay for the most expensive schools.Do rich people get better education? ›
The rate of bachelor's attainment in the most well-off families has grown from about 40 percent in 1970, to just about 77 percent in 2013. In contrast, for students whose families fall in the lowest 25 percent of earners, attainment has barely risen, moving from 6 percent in 1970 to 9 percent in 2013.Does more money lead to better schools? ›
Yes. On average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes. The size of this effect is larger in some studies than in others, and, in some cases, additional funding appears to matter more for some students than for others.Do rich people get financial aid for college? ›
There are favorable non-need-based loans that students from even the wealthiest families will qualify for, so if you want your child to take on some of the responsibility for financing his or her own education, or if you want to consider federal borrowing options yourself, you will need to complete a FAFSA to access ...Are rich kids more likely to go to college? ›
Freelance business, economics, finance, and tech journalist. A new study from the Pell Institute shows that family income not only has a huge correlation with the chance that a kid gets into college, but of that person's likelihood of actually graduating. (Hat tip to CNN Money.)
The majority of colleges and universities in the US practice need-blind admissions. This means they will not take your financial need into consideration when making an admission decision. They will not look at your ability to pay neither will they consider your potential need for financial aid.How do students feel about the cost of college? ›
Nearly all students (81%) said schools should spend more money on providing course materials and less on amenities like dorms, facilities and athletics. Most students (78 percent) think their education is worth what they're paying -- as long as college is a gateway to financial independence.What is a solution to rising college tuition? ›
One avenue to reducing costs would be cutting the time it takes to obtain a college degree. If students are able to receive college credit for coursework while they're still in high school or even middle school, that would shorten the time they're paying for four-year colleges.How does college tuition affect inflation? ›
A good rule of thumb is that tuition rates will increase at about twice the general inflation rate. On average, tuition tends to increase about 8% per year. An 8% college inflation rate means that the cost of college doubles every nine years.When did college become too expensive? ›
How The Cost Of College Went From Affordable To Sky-High In the decades following World War II, many American families had a lot of help paying for a college education. But in the 1970s, inflation spiked and public policies began to change.How do most students get the money to pay the high costs of attending college? ›
Many students fund their undergraduate education by attending low-cost schools and finding scholarships, federal and private student loans and part-time work. Ensure you make the right school choice, tap savings and seek out gift aid before all else.When did college become unaffordable? ›
And yet, by 1970, college access was disrupted by double-digit inflation and a struggling economy. Tuition and fees rose alongside the inflation rate, making college — once again — unaffordable for many students.Would more people attend college if it was cheaper? ›
More Educated Population:
If more people could afford college, more people would probably attend. This leads to a more educated population.
Furthermore, higher enrollment numbers also lead to an increase in financial aid and a rise in operational costs to accommodate the influx of students, which all lead to higher tuition fees. In other words, rising college costs can be mostly attributed to a cycle of supply and demand.What would happen if college was free? ›
If college was made free, we could see the decline of private vs. public schools. Since these schools rely on tuition, endowments, and alumni donations for a good portion of their funding, competing with free public colleges could force many private schools to close.
Educational outcomes are one of the key areas influenced by family incomes. Children from low-income families often start school already behind their peers who come from more affluent families, as shown in measures of school readiness.Does poverty cause poor education? ›
Poverty and education are inextricably linked, because people living in poverty may stop going to school so they can work, which leaves them without literacy and numeracy skills they need to further their careers.How does poor education affect society? ›
Higher crime rates, exposing residents to greater risk of trauma and deaths from violence and the stress of living in unsafe neighborhoods. People with less education, particularly males, are more likely to be incarcerated, which carries its own public health risks.Why do low income students typically receive more grant aid at high price colleges than elsewhere? ›
The average net price is much lower than the sticker price.
Because low-income students typically receive more grant aid at high-price colleges than elsewhere, these schools can end up costing less for these students than schools with lower price tags.
Thirteen percent of Americans with the highest incomes get private scholarships, compared with 9 percent of those with the lowest incomes.What problems do low income college students face? ›
Low income students struggle to have basic necessities like food and housing. Low income students find themselves skipping meals or reducing food intake altogether to save money. Some college kids rely on staying at school over breaks. It may be too expensive to go back home, or there may be no home to go back to.What is the achievement gap between rich and poor students? ›
Lowest income students' learning level is up to four years behind the highest income students. LAGGING BEHIND Standardized tests in recent decades indicate that the academic achievement of the poorest U.S. students is several years behind that of their wealthier peers.What is the main consequence of rising college costs? ›
With ballooning student loans, graduates tend to delay making major life decisions, such as buying a home, getting married, or having children. Other effects of rising college tuition include students enrolling at less expensive community colleges or dropping out of college altogether.What are 3 factors getting into college? ›
- Academics: Your Course Load and Grades. ...
- Standardized Test Scores. ...
- Meaningful Letters of Recommendation. ...
- Your Extracurricular Activities and Résumé ...
- Effective Essays. ...
- Character and Resilience. ...
- Passion and a Track Record in Your Chosen Field. ...
- Demonstrated Interest.
Why is college in the U.S. so expensive compared to other countries? One of the biggest reasons why American students tend to spend more on college is because they're responsible for picking up more of the tab. In other countries, it's common for the government to subsidize the cost of education.
Instructional cost differences across fields can mostly be explained by large differences in class size across disciplines and, to a lesser extent, differences in average faculty pay. Teaching loads and other non-personnel expenditures explain relatively little.How rich is too rich for the FAFSA? ›
Wealth advisors say qualifying for financial aid generally becomes more difficult when a family earns more than $150,000 a year or has a lot of financial assets such as a high balance in a tax-advantaged college savings plan or lots of stocks and bonds.Are wealthy kids 8 times more likely to graduate college than poor? ›
Only 9 percent of U.S. kids whose families are in the bottom income quartile (less than $34,160 annual income) get a bachelor's degree by age 24, versus 77 percent of those from a top quartile background ($108,650 or more).Can you get financial aid if you are rich? ›
Let us set the record straight here… There are NO income limits for completing the FAFSA. It merely establishes your expected family contribution (EFC) for needs-based federal financial aid.Do poorer students achieve less? ›
The relationship between student poverty and academic performance is well-established: On average, economically disadvantaged students have lower levels of achievement than their peers, a gap that has not narrowed in the past 50 years.Why wealthy parents are increasingly choosing public over private schools? ›
Many students are better able to stand out and achieve at a high level in a standard public school, especially when they have tutors and good support at home. When students are able to stand out among their peers, they feel more confident in their abilities and set their sights on higher goals.Does income matter for scholarships? ›
Unlike student loans or grants, scholarships aren't always given out based on financial need. In fact, many scholarship winners are selected solely on merit.
There is no income cut-off to qualify for federal student aid. Many factors—such as the size of your family and your year in school—are taken into account.Can I still get financial aid if my parents make too much? ›
Don't worry, this is a common question for many students. The good news is that the Department of Education doesn't have an official income cutoff to qualify for federal financial aid. So, even if you think your parents' income is too high, it's still worth applying (plus, it's free to apply).Who gets more FAFSA money? ›
Dependency status matters a lot when your financial aid eligibility is determined. There's one simple reason why independent student FAFSA applicants receive more financial aid: If you're a dependent student, you must include your family's income and assets when you complete the FAFSA.