Low Income, Wealthy Students Compete for Aid Amidst Rising College Costs

The financial aid gap keeps widening between low income and wealthy students -- why?

By Kathryn Knight Randolph

March 28, 2016

Low Income, Wealthy Students Compete for Aid Amidst Rising College Costs

In the last five years, the cost of attending college has risen roughly 12%, according to CollegeBoard’s Trends in Higher Education. But what has increased at an even further alarming rate is the financial aid gap between lower income and wealthy students.

The focus, which has been brought to light by Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at New America, found that the increasing cost of colleges and the lack of financial aid is causing families with incomes of less than $30,000 to spend more than half of the family’s annual earnings on college, according to Inside Higher Ed.

So what’s happening?

These days, colleges and universities across the country tout their number of Pell Grant recipients as a way to promote the image that they’re helping underprivileged students attain a college education, which will propel them on the course to a successful career and financial stability. Pell Grant recipients represent the neediest students at colleges. The maximum Pell Grant award is $5,815, and this study revealed that these students in particular are paying over $10,000 a year to attend college, as reported by Inside Higher Ed.

As a result, they’re either using half of their family’s annual income to pay for school – or they’re racking up $40,000 in student loan debt by the time they graduate.

This is where institutional aid should come into play. However, more and more, it’s being used to attract wealthy students who can pay the full sticker price for college. These students and their parents are desirous of an affluent college education; however, they also want to get it at a bargain.

So rather than use the institutional aid to help lower income students, it’s become a bargaining chip to target wealthier students, according to the New America study. It’s also fiscally better for the schools too. Inside Higher Ed states that Burd writes, “It’s cheaper to provide $5,000 merit scholarships to five wealthier students than to provide one $25,000 grant to a low-income student — even if the low-income student is academically superior — because the five wealthier students will be able to pay the rest of their tuition.”

Unfortunately, for lower-income students, this comes at a cost to them – both literally and figuratively. As competition to keep up with the best colleges surges, so does the need for schools to attract the best of the best – or in this case, the wealthiest of the wealthiest. Even when lower income students can outperform full-pay students, they are oftentimes overlooked in favor of the students that bring the most money.

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