As tuition across the nation continues to outpace gains in financial aid, students' chances of attending college and finishing with a degree increasingly are linked to their families' income, the College Board reported Tuesday.
The nonprofit group, in releasing two reports on college costs and financial aid, noted big gaps in graduation rates even among students who had high test scores.
Those from families with the highest income and education levels finished college at more than double the rate of high-scoring students from the lowest socioeconomic grouping.
Sandy Baum, a College Board analyst, said the data showed that college completion increasingly was "not about academic preparation; it's about money."
Not including room, board and books, the tuition and fees at four-year public colleges rose this year by a national average of about 7%, to $5,491.
(University of California fees this year average $6,769 for resident undergraduates, and the Cal State system charges on average $3,102 for state residents.)
Private four-year schools raised their tuition by an average of about 6%, to $21,235, the group reported.
The increase in public college tuition was smaller than the double-digit increases of the last two years, when numerous states experienced budget strains and passed more costs on to students.
Private college tuition increased at about the same rate as the previous year.
Average total charges nationwide this year, including room and board, are $12,127 for public colleges and $29,026 for private schools.
Financial aid did not keep pace with tuition increases this year, continuing a trend, the reports said. The average net tuition and fees -- the price paid after financial aid is awarded -- was $11,600 for private college students, up from an inflation-adjusted $9,500 a decade ago. Public college net tuition and fees averaged $2,200, increasing from a real price of $1,900 a decade ago.
College Board President Gaston Caperton, a former West Virginia governor, said increasing the number of college graduates was crucial to U.S. economic growth.
Speaking at a Washington news conference with some reporters participating by telephone, Caperton said that China produced more than eight times as many engineering graduates than the U.S. last year, and India graduated five times as many.
"Affordability is essential to opportunity," Caperton said of the need to boost college enrollment and graduation.
As college costs rise, students and their families are borrowing more to cover the expenses, the reports said.
And the financial aid pool also is strained by policies that benefit affluent families, through tax credits and merit scholarships that reward students who have high test scores or grades.
University of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan said at the news conference that merit scholarships often went to students who would attend college anyway, while diverting funds from low-income students.
"They are very popular, middle-class voters love them ... but they are something a responsible society would not do," Kirwan said.
Citing federal statistics, Baum said the consequences of rising costs and family resources could be seen in the lives of students who scored highly on mathematics exams as eighth-graders in 1988.
Within the lowest socioeconomic sample, 75% of the high-scoring eighth-graders eventually enrolled in college, but 29% had earned college degrees eight years after high school graduation. Ninety-nine percent of high-scoring eighth-graders within the highest socioeconomic sample attended college, with 74% earning degrees. High scorers in the middle two socioeconomic groups entered college at a 91% rate, with 47% earning degrees.
University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann said the gap also was "widening between high and middle," as costs rise and merit scholarships go to more affluent students.
"These families are stressed," she said of those with incomes from $50,000 to $100,000. "Making college truly affordable to middle-income as well as low-income students is one of our greatest challenges."