Poorer families are paying more than higher-income families when it comes to the cost of college tuition. According to The Hechinger Report, colleges and universities in the country are “quietly shifting the burden of their big tuition increases onto low-income students,” while many other students are seeing costs rising more slowly or even falling.
Currently, more than 38 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, totaling over $1 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The current trend could further widen the gap between the nation’s classes, as low-income students increasingly become unable to obtain college degrees.
Although the net price of attending private colleges and universities increased for all students between the 2008-09 and 2011-12 academic years, students in the lowest income group saw the biggest increase during that period. According to the report, wealthier students still pay more for college educations on average, but schools are giving more financial aid to higher-income students in order to keep revenue coming in.
Colleges and universities are increasingly offering more financial aid to court wealthier students and are leaving it up to taxpayers to support financial aid for lower-income students.
“Institutions are really allocating resources to attract those not full-paying, but close to full-paying, students to secure the revenue they need,” Laura Perna, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and an expert on higher-education financing, told Hechinger.
State budget cuts for higher education are part of the reason lower-income students have become more vulnerable to rising tuition costs at public universities as well. In Delaware, the average net price of tuition for the poorest in-state students increased from $10,300 in 2008-09 to $14,500 in 2011-12. Illinois, one of the five most expensive states for public university tuition, had one of the largest increases in net prices for poor students during that period.
Over the past decade, college tuition has risen three times as fast as the consumer-price index and twice as fast as medical care. According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, administrators “with bloated salaries” and “university presidents who are now paid as though they were CEOs” are driving the cost of higher education.
Additionally, colleges are spending more on entertainment and amenities, supposedly to compete with other universities. They also spend millions of dollars financially supporting college athletes.
Last year, President Obama announced a set of proposals to make college more affordable for all Americans. The administration’s proposals included a plan to rank colleges before the 2015 school year based on criteria like tuition, graduation rates, and graduate debt and earnings data, and to eventually tie ratings to financial aid.
“The country has a growing income gap,” Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University, told Hechinger. “We need to turn that tide. This is one of the major challenges we’re going to face as a country.”
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Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.