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The rich get smarter

More scholarships for wealthy students cut out the poor kids.

October 23, 2005|Peter Hong | Peter Hong is a Times staff writer.

ONCE AGAIN, the term "elite college" is coming to mean "rich kids' school."

For decades, prestigious colleges had been transforming themselves by enrolling greater numbers of poor and middle-class students, drawing them with generous financial aid. Today, eager to win a high rank in U.S. News & World Report's college guide, more and more schools cinch the enrollment of high-testing students by offering them tuition discounts -- even if their families are rich.

And so another gap widens in a nation where the annual cost of attending some top liberal arts colleges and private universities surpasses the U.S. median household income of $44,389 a year. The annual bill for tuition, room and board and other expenses at the University of Southern California is about $44,580. Northwestern University charges $44,590. The costs at New York University and Washington University in St. Louis are a couple of sweatshirts and textbooks short of exceeding the median household income. The bill at 75 schools in the U.S. now exceeds $40,000.

Students admitted to these and similar schools are by definition high achievers. Yet some pay far less than the sticker price because they receive merit scholarships. Many of these students' families can afford to pay, but schools give them money because the students' high SAT scores help the schools rate higher in college guides, including the U.S. News rankings.

The more selective schools do offer financial aid to needy students, but there's less space for them as wealthier students, who generally score higher on the Scholastic Assessment Test, take the merit scholarship bait. According to higher-education analyst Thomas G. Mortenson, the percentage of low-income students attending 32 of U.S. News' 50 top national universities fell between 1992 and 2001. Low-income enrollment at 33 of the magazine's top 51 liberal arts colleges dropped as well.

Most colleges keep their lofty sticker prices on par with their peers, lest they appear to be bargain-basement goods and lose appeal among coveted up-market students. This trend reverses decades of progress in opening elite colleges to students regardless of how much money their parents make.

Last week, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann labeled merit scholarships "a big culprit" in colleges' arms-race-like competition to outrank each other. "Colleges and universities are fighting for students who have high SAT scores. It's a fight to the bottom, and the only people who gain are affluent families," she said.

Gutmann said middle-class families with incomes between $50,000 to $100,000 a year suffer. They are less able to afford the enhancements that help build a student's credentials for a merit scholarship: a house in a top-end school district, a private school, tutors and college counselors or comprehensive SAT prep courses.

Colleges awarded fewer merit scholarships in the 1970s, when tuition was much lower and colleges reserved aid money for students who needed it. Today, few schools -- Harvard is one -- offer only need-based scholarships and follow a "need-blind" admissions policy, accepting or rejecting students without knowing whether their parents live off trust funds or welfare.

Affluent students with savvy parents and solid college counseling know how to work the discounts. Less informed students are frequently scared away by the price tag before they can learn about aid opportunities.

Mindful of the sticker-shock deterrent, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers announced last year that the university would not expect families with incomes less than $40,000 a year to pay anything for their child's education at Harvard. The move was mostly symbolic: It costs $41,675 to attend Harvard, so a family at that income level would have paid little, if anything, anyway. Yet symbolic gestures can lead to substantive changes. Low-income student applications rose substantially at Harvard this year.

The leaders of the University of California also knew the power of an unambiguous message. The 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California declared the system tuition-free, and UC officials still maintain the illusion by calling tuition "fees." This year, tuition-free schooling at UCLA will cost a Californian about $6,500 in fees. But the legacy of the system's tuition-free past remains.

Mortenson's study of low-income enrollment at U.S. News' top 50 universities found that UCLA and UC Berkeley have by far the highest percentage of low-income students -- about one-third of undergraduates. Four other UC campuses on U.S. News' list of top 50 schools also enrolled a high percentage of low-income students.

USC actually enrolled a greater share of low-income students (nearly a quarter of undergraduates) than any of the leading private colleges. The "University of Spoiled Children" even has a higher percentage of low-income students than public schools, outside California, in U.S. News' top 50.

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