Colleges lav­ish­ing more fi­nan­cial aid on wealthy stu­dents

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Michael Melia

STORRS, CONN. >> Spencer Mul­li­gan knew his fam­ily could pay for his col­lege ed­u­ca­tion, even with­out loans or grants. So when the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut of­fered a merit award of $20,000 over four years, he saw it as a bonus.

As a dis­count on in-state tu­ition, it brought the cost well be­low half of what his fam­ily might have paid at his other top choices, Penn State or the Univer­sity of Ver­mont.

“My dad was kind of split be­cause he didn’t want to push me into go­ing to a school be­cause of fi­nan­cial rea­sons,” said Mul­li­gan, a 21-year-old com­puter sci­ence stu­dent from Darien, one of the na­tion’s wealth­i­est com­mu­ni­ties. “With­out fi­nan­cial rea­sons I might have gone to Penn State, but on the other hand he was like, ‘If you go to UConn, it will save us a bunch of money.’

“That means now I can pres­sure him into get­ting me stuff,” he joked.

Fi­nan­cial aid, tra­di­tion­ally a life­line for poorer stu­dents at pub­lic colleges, is in­creas­ingly be­ing used to at­tract stu­dents from more af­flu­ent fam­i­lies. In com­pe­ti­tion with pri­vate schools and other pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, the state schools are us­ing the money to lure the most qual­i­fied stu­dents, raise av­er­age test scores and en­tice stu­dents from high-in­come fam­i­lies who can pay the rest of the full sticker price.

Crit­ics say that by de­vot­ing aid to stu­dents who don’t need it, state schools are pun­ish­ing the poor, mak­ing it harder for them to at­tend col­lege when the gap be­tween tu­ition costs and af­ford­abil­ity is only grow­ing.

“The re­al­ity is that for poor fam­i­lies, it’s a ques­tion of whether the kids go to col­lege at all. For the bet­ter-off fam­ily, it’s a ques­tion of which col­lege,” said Harold Levy, direc­tor of the Jack Kent Cooke Foun­da­tion, which pro­vides need-based schol­ar­ships. “It’s a tragic waste of tal­ent. It al­ters the lives of stu­dents.”

Of the in­sti­tu­tional aid given last year to UConn fresh­men, the amount not based on need rose to $19.9 mil­lion, up from $12.9 mil­lion five years ear­lier. But the school also in­creased the amount of need-based aid it of­fered, $50.9 mil­lion, up from $38.9 mil­lion five years ear­lier.

Other state schools have moved re­sources even more ag­gres­sively to merit aid. A re­view this year by Stephen Burd, an an­a­lyst with the think tank New Amer­ica, found 28 per­cent of pub­lic colleges in 2014-2015 spent at least half of their aid dol­lars on stu­dents with­out fi­nan­cial need.

It’s a shift that has helped state

uni­ver­si­ties cope with de­clines in state fund­ing for higher ed­u­ca­tion; the awards bring in stu­dents whose fam­i­lies can pay close to full tu­ition.

At UConn, as at many other flag­ship state schools, out-of-state stu­dents have ben­e­fited most from the in­crease in merit aid, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 leg­isla­tive re­port. The school costs $25,802 an­nu­ally for res­i­dents and $47,344 for those out of state.

State uni­ver­si­ties are adopt­ing an ap­proach long used by pri­vate schools, ac­cord­ing to Joni Fin­ney, an au­thor of a re­port on col­lege af­ford­abil­ity from the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s In­sti­tute for Re­search on Higher Ed­u­ca­tion this year that found in­vest­ment in merit aid out­pac­ing need­based aid. It said states’ pro­vi­sion of need-based fi­nan­cial aid barely changed

from 1996 to 2012, while state aid for high-in­come stu­dents rose more than 450 per­cent.

The study found aid for non-needy stu­dents also grow­ing faster at pri­vate, four-year colleges, where in­sti­tu­tional aid for stu­dents whose fam­i­lies earn above $125,000 in­creased from $1,950 to $6,400 over the same pe­riod. Aid to stu­dents whose fam­i­lies make less than $25,000 rose from $2,900 to $7,700.

At UConn, which has been climb­ing U.S News & World Re­port rank­ings, of­fi­cials have vig­or­ously de­fended merit awards when pressed by state law­mak­ers on ques­tions about af­ford­abil­ity. Schol­ar­ships of­fered to top stu­dents, univer­sity of­fi­cials have said in tes­ti­mony to the leg­is­la­ture, are crit­i­cal to the univer­sity’s suc­cess and at­tract stu­dents who could oth­er­wise at­tend Ivy League schools.

A 2014 re­port by a state leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee found that aid pack­ages for low­in­come stu­dents have re­lied in­creas­ingly on fed­eral ed­u­ca­tion loans. But it said re­duc­ing merit aid to stu­dents with­out fi­nan­cial need, in the ab­sence of other flag­ship state schools do­ing the same, would likely hurt UConn’s ef­forts to move up in rank­ings, and pos­si­bly aca­demic qual­ity.

Mean­while, win­ning ad­mis­sion and paying for col­lege has be­come ever more daunt­ing at flag­ship state uni­ver­si­ties, in­sti­tu­tions that tra­di­tion­ally were seen by many as af­ford­able fall­back op­tions.

Jes­lyn La­monte, 19, of Ver­non, Con­necti­cut, is plan­ning to trans­fer to UConn next year af­ter two years of smaller pay­ments at Manch­ester Com­mu­nity Col­lege, which is 15 miles west of the main UConn cam­pus in Storrs and charges about $4,000 an­nu­ally.

“It came down to that I didn’t want all the stu­dent loans,” La­monte said.

A class­mate, Kim Eigner, 22, of Columbia, Con­necti­cut, trans­ferred to the com­mu­nity col­lege from UConn af­ter her fam­ily found the tu­ition pay­ments over­whelm­ing. Her job at a gro­cery store’s flo­ral de­part­ment hardly put a dent in the bills.

“I wasn’t able to af­ford it my­self,” she said.

“The re­al­ity is that for poor fam­i­lies, it’s a ques­tion of whether the kids go to col­lege at all. For the bet­ter-off fam­ily, it’s a ques­tion of which col­lege.” — Harold Levy, direc­tor of the Jack Kent Cooke Foun­da­tion

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Manch­ester Com­mu­nity Col­lege stu­dent Jes­lyn La­monte of Ver­non, Conn., stands on the school’s cam­pus in Manch­ester, Conn.

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