January 13, 2012
“There is a group of students who enter college with such dire financial need that the amount the federal government expects their families to contribute to college is effectively zero. In Wisconsin, that zero-pay population has grown by half in a single year: from 42,641 students in the 2008-09 academic year to 65,800 in 2009-10.”
That’s from Daniel DeVise’s College Inc. blog this past Wednesday. He’s reporting on data shared at the recent Council of Independent College‘s President’s Institute by Rolf Wegenke, president of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. DeVise adds, that these data surely “mirror a national trend.” Indeed.
This is a scary glimpse into one of the vectors of the unfolding crisis of access to a college education. Increasingly, the college-age population is coming from families of low and modest incomes. That increases the need for financial aid. That’s what Wegenke is showing us.
A second vector is that state governments are decreasing their support of higher education. They are providing less direct support to public institutions, and also cutting their support of financial aid for lower-income students. One consequence is that public institutions are hiking their tuition charges to make up for the lost state support. That means lower income students need even more financial aid if they are to attend.
And there’s a third vector. DeVise says “Colleges are diverting much more aid money to needy students because many more students are in need,” but I think he’s simply wrong in saying that. A recent report from the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that colleges and universities are shifting increasingly from need-based to “merit-based” aid. According to an Inside Higher Ed summary of the NCES report, “In 1995–96, need-based institutional grants were more common than merit-based grants in both private nonprofit (43 percent vs. 24 per-cent) and public 4-year institutions (13 percent vs. 8 percent) (figure 4). In 2007–08, the proportion of merit aid recipients exceeded that of need-based grant recipients at public institutions (18 percent vs. 16 percent) and was not measurably different at private nonprofit 4-year institutions (42 percent vs. 44 per-cent).”
I put “merit aid” in quotation marks because a good deal of aid that is awarded on the basis of “merit” turns out to go to students with quite average grades, SAT scores or other credentials. Those students should go to college, sure. But colleges are giving them aid because their parents have higher incomes. Colleges and universities are using “merit aid” to attract a greater share of students from those higher income families, and are prepared to take a little less in tuition from those families to get them to pay the rest. Students from lower-income families, these colleges are saying in effect, can go somewhere else.
So that’s the third vector: colleges are diverting aid away from need and deploying their aid resources tactically to capture (lower) tuition payments from higher income families. Just when we need more need-based aid, the need-based aid dollars are being used to subsidize more affluent students.
The crisis of college affordability mess is only going to get worse. Wegenke (and DeVise) have lifted a corner of the rug.