Top public universities faulted on financial aid

By Jenna Johnson
Thursday, January 14, 2010

Many of the nation's top public universities are giving millions of dollars in financial aid to students from relatively wealthy families instead of to those who urgently need it, resulting in campuses that are often less diverse than those at elite private schools, a new report says.

From 2003 to 2007, public research universities increased the amount of aid to students whose parents make at least $115,000 a year by 28 percent, to $361.4 million, said the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Those schools routinely award as much in financial aid to students whose parents make more than $80,000 a year as to those whose parents make less than $54,000 a year, according to the report, "Opportunity Adrift."

The report suggests that the universities have neglected their mission to educate their states' diverse populations in favor of recruiting high-achieving students from relatively wealthy families who can help the schools climb in national rankings.

"It's almost as if some of America's best public colleges have forgotten that they are, in fact, public," Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, said in a statement.

Thirty years ago, a federal Pell Grant covered most of the cost of attending a four-year college; today it covers about a third, making it more difficult for low-income students to attend their states' flagship schools. The typical low-income student is stuck with a bill totaling about 70 percent of the family's annual income, the report says.

"These institutions continue today to enroll students who are far richer and far whiter" than would be expected when considering overall demographics, Haycock said.

An evaluation of top public universities in the 2007-08 school year found that the University of Virginia had one of the best graduation rates for minority students. But the school ranked near the bottom when it came to enrolling low-income students in numbers that reflect the state's demographics, and it ranked in the middle for enrollment of minority students.

The University of Maryland at College Park ranked in the middle for all three categories, but it was commended for participating in the Access to Success Initiative, which aims to narrow the attendance and graduation gaps between minority and low-income students and their peers.

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, speaking in the state schools' defense, said that they had "massively shifted" their financial priorities toward low-income students but that a significant number of scholarships and other forms of financial aid have restrictions on how they are awarded.

McPherson said that although many states have pumped additional funding into community colleges to help low-income and minority students, many have not done the same for four-year institutions. Still, minority enrollment increased from 24.5 percent in 2000 to 28.5 percent in 2007, he said.

Haycock said public universities have great control over how they distribute most of their financial aid and can choose to favor the neediest students over those who would be able to attend college without it.

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