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Rising tuition rates hitting low-income families the hardest, research says

Published: Monday, March 10 2014 10:05 p.m. MDT

Some say it's "affirmative action for the rich." Colleges are forcing big tuition increases on lower-income students at greater rates than their higher-income peers, according to a new analysis

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Colleges and universities are pushing “big tuition increases” upon lower-income students at greater rates than their higher-income peers, according to a new analysis by researchers at The Hechinger Report.

“America’s colleges and universities are quietly shifting the burden of tuition increases onto low-income students,” wrote Hechinger's Jon Marcus and Holly K. Hacker. "They’re expected to devote a greater share of their annual income to college costs.”

The authors said that targeting poor families compounds the burden they already feel when facing the cost of a college education.

Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at the non-profit, non-partisan New America Foundation, is quoted in the new report. He believes that shifting the burden to pay for schools upon poorer students at a greater rate is tantamount to “affirmative action for the rich.”

The overall effect is being caused by a confluence of phenomena. One of the primary causes is “channeling aid,” meaning that schools direct the most attractive financial aid packages to particular groups. In the years researchers examined, middle- and high-income students were being offered increasingly large grant and scholarship packages compared with students who come from families making less than $30,000 per year.

“We’re just exacerbating the income inequalities and educational achievement gaps,” Deborah Santiago, vice president of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit advocacy organization, told Marcus and Hacker. Santiago is referring to academic disparities between groups of students such as students with well-educated parents who generally do better than students who are the first in their families able to attend college.

Education Week elaborates that “the achievement gap shows up in grades, standardized test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college completion rates, among other measures.”

Marcus and Hacker write that schools have an incentive to attract students who boast “test scores and grade-point averages that make the colleges look better in annual rankings.”

Some schools are reacting by claiming that the government's formula for determining net price is inaccurate, and that they use a different calculation, according to Marcus and Hacker, although none are quoted in the new report. Instead, researchers include the views of university officials, like Melissa Connolly of Hofstra University, who told them that her school uses scholarship monies to try to build their academic reputation.

Laura Perna, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that a school trying to lure the wealthier student with a larger financial aid package is behaving as “any rational actor.” She told the authors of the new report that the trend is for schools to make “decisions in their own self-interest” that “are not necessarily in the public interest.”

Burd contends that schools are "talking out of both sides of their mouths" by claiming that they care about providing opportunities to traditionally underprivileged students while simultaneously giving “more and more of their aid to higher-income students.”

According to the report, which is an analysis of government data, the net price for higher education increased an average of $1,100 at public and $1,500 at private universities for all students between 2008-09 and 2011-12, which is the most recent data available.

At present, students from wealthier families still pay more for higher education than lower-income students, but as a percentage of a families’ income, the price spikes are being felt most acutely by the latter.

“Experts note that as tuition spirals even higher, even wealthier families need help paying for it,” according to the authors.

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