College Admissions

Financial Matters

As the cost of a college education continues to increase, there is much discussion among higher education professionals about how to provide access to students from lower-income families. Many students whose families can’t afford to pay for college haven’t bothered to apply to four year schools, and we all lose if only students from affluent families can attend college.

A number of prestigious colleges have taken steps to lessen the financial burden for students who might be scared off by their high price tag. In recent years, Harvard and University of Virginia are among the highly selective schools that have eliminated loans for students from lower-income families.

Amherst has just joined the small group of elite colleges that don’t include loans in any financial aid packages. Davidson College made a similar announcement a few months ago and Princeton has been doing the same thing for years. Students who qualify for need-based aid will graduate from these colleges debt-free.

This approach to financial aid frees students to choose a college that they really want to attend, without the fear of being saddled with big loans. The colleges also benefit because they can attract top students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who contribute to the diversity on campus.

While the most prestigious schools often have large endowments that allow them to provide generous financial aid packages to all needy students, most colleges don’t have unlimited resources and will continue to include loans in financial aid packages. Administrators at all schools are concerned about providing access for needy students, and sometimes this means increasing the cost for students from more affluent families.

George Washington University, already among the most expensive schools in the country, is raising tuition to more than $39,000 this year, and total expenses including room, board and books, are likely to be over $50,000. It may be small comfort that tuition doesn’t increase once you start at the university. While GW has been generous with merit aid in the past, the administration recently decided to shift some of its resources from merit to need-based aid. Other colleges are also trying to lessen the impact of tuition increases by awarding larger grants to needy students.

Some schools have traditionally charged lower tuition than peer colleges, keeping costs down for everyone. But many of these schools are changing their approach. University of Richmond, Rice University, Bryn Mawr College and University of Notre Dame all significantly increased tuition in recent years. Grinnell College has had lower tuition than similar colleges, but the school is raising tuition for new students, and some of that additional money will go into financial aid packages. While parents may understandably complain about the high cost of college, raising tuition can actually bring more applications, as people often associate high cost with high quality.

That seems to be what happened when Ursinus College raised their tuition by more than 17 percent and received almost 200 more applications the following year. The college increased their freshmen class by 35 percent within four years. The school, which offers merit as well as need-based aid, also increased financial aid by nearly 20 percent.

It seems that many people don’t quite trust a lower-cost school, even if they do love the idea of getting a merit scholarship to lower their cost. Some colleges have found they can raise their profile by increasing tuition and offering discounts in the form of scholarships to attract strong students.

While many college administrators would like to cut back on merit aid to students whose families can afford to pay full tuition, it’s a delicate balancing act. They don’t want to lose affluent students who will choose a school that offers a scholarship, yet they want to increase access to lower-income students. Understanding how these sometimes conflicting goals influence policies can help families make informed choices.