Today’s financial aid promises little for tomorrow’s disadvantaged
Student loan debt is at an all-time high. According to CNN Money, the class of 2013 graduated with an average of $32,000 in college-related debt.
Money plays a more important role in the college admissions game than ever before. In a saturated market, colleges have to work to attract students.
Faced with skyrocketing tuition costs and a bleak job market, prospective students are likely to attend the school that can offer them the most scholarship and grant money. The 2012 nation-wide CIRP Freshman Survey found that 45.6 percent of freshmen rated financial assistance “very important” when making final college selections.
With the rise of university rankings lists, colleges have a vested interest in maintaining a student body with high entering scores. The popular US News & World Report rankings cite high school class rankings and SAT scores of the entering class as factors in their methodology.
In order to stay competitive, both public and private schools are increasing their merit scholarship awards to attract high-achieving students.
The New York Times reports that the proportion of state financial aid that is not need-based has tripled in the past 20 years, to 29 percent per full-time student in the 2010-2011 school year.
Non-need based scholarships are often based on high school performance and test scores. For example, the University of Houston Tier One scholarship requires a minimum math and reading SAT composite score of 1300 and top 10 percent class ranking for students to be eligible.
There is a strong positive correlation between wealth and SAT performance. Each successive income bracket performs better than the last on the SAT. Students in the $200,000 and up bracket average a score of 570 on the math portion of the SAT, while those in the $80,000 to $100,000 bracket scored 525. Students with a family income of $20,000 or under had an average score of 456.
Wealthy students have funds for test preparation and leisure time to study. Lower-income students are faced with economic pressures and often work to support the family. Because of systematic barriers, lower-income students of the same intellectual capability as the wealthier students can be shut out of merit-based aid opportunity.
Financial aid funds are a fixed amount. Money that goes to wealthy students on merit scholarships is money that does not go to students with demonstrated financial need. Successive state funding cuts mean that it makes more economic sense for a public university to fund four quarter-tuition merit scholarships for wealthy students who can pay the remaining three quarters rather than one full-tuition scholarship for a financially needy student.
According to 2012 financial data, 71.5 percent of students at the University of Houston applied for need-based aid. Only 17.9 percent of students had their financial needs fully met. On average, 71.7 percent of need was satisfied.
The financial aid problem persists at private universities as well. About two-thirds of the top 150 private colleges with the highest endowment per student are not need-blind in the admissions process. Income factors into admissions decisions, and colleges can reject a student who would need too much financial aid.
Of 1,130 schools that reported financial data in the 2012 US News & World Report ranking, only 61 claimed to meet full financial need.
College degrees are vital in today’s job market. Higher education is often the key to financial upward mobility. As long as tuition continues to rise and need-based aid remains limited, low-income students are at a massive disadvantage.
Opinion columnist Megan Kallus is a pre-business freshman and may be reached at [email protected]