Colleges Want Wealthy Students -- and They Give Them More Financial Aid

Here’s why colleges are giving more scholarships to rich students and how low-income students can maximize available options
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Colleges are increasingly spending more to woo affluent students with scholarships based solely on academic or other achievements, experts say. And it’s leaving those who need aid the most with fewer resources to afford college.

Students in the highest 25% income range received a greater amount of non-federal financial aid ($11,300) on average compared with all other income levels, including those in the lowest 25% income range ($7,500), according to a 2019 report on non-federal aid by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Here’s why colleges are giving more aid to wealthier students and how students with financial need can maximize available options.

Colleges Want Wealthier Students

Affluent students get more school aid compared with students with financial need because colleges are actively pursuing them, experts say. Schools are offering non-need-based merit aid in order to attract students with wealth, especially if they’re high-performing.

It’s a race for prestige, says Martin Van Der Werf, associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“Better prepared students, higher graduation rates and a better chance of attracting students who will later give back to the college — that’s the reward system that’s in place,” says Van Der Werf, adding that there’s no similar reward system for helping low-income students.

Colleges tend to choose students who will boost their rankings, and rich students often have characteristics that fit the bill.

Rankings are always partially based on performance metrics: U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings, for example, take into account academic success and high SAT scores. Wealthier students tend to perform better on SATs, according to an assessment of SAT results by the Brookings Institution.

Another factor in rankings is college completion — national data show students from low-income schools are slightly less likely to graduate compared with students at high-income schools.

Schools Are Competing

In an effort to compete with one another, private and public colleges are adopting a “high tuition, high aid” model, says Stephen Burd, senior writer and editor of higher education at New America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.

“It makes it more and more expensive for the people who don’t get money, leaving them with more unmet need,” Burd says.

You expect to see a high price tag at private colleges, but now public colleges are getting in the game by raising costs and working to attract out-of-state students who pay more to attend.

“It is derailing public higher education and why we have a public higher education system to begin with,” he adds.

Financial Aid Budgets Are Limited

Families depend on financial aid to help meet college costs — aid like scholarships and grants covers about one-third of college costs, according to Sallie Mae’s most recent “How America Pays for College” report.

But there’s only so much money to go around when it comes to a college’s financial aid budget, and schools must make choices about how that money is spent.

From 2014 to 2017, non-need aid, or merit aid, among colleges grew 37%, compared with need-based aid, which grew 21%, according to a 2020 New America report that examines financial aid among 339 schools. These schools increased their non-need aid from $2.2 billion to nearly $3 billion over this time period.

Some colleges are trying to give as much as they can to students, especially Pell Grant recipients, argues Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.

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But, he adds, that doesn’t mean students will get the full amount of financial aid that they’re qualified for — colleges will give only what they budget for.

How to Get More Aid for College

In lieu of sweeping change among all colleges to increase need-based aid, low-income students can still maximize financial aid that is available. Here’s how.

  • Since most aid is first come, first served, submit the FAFSA as close to the start date as possible (Oct. 1 each year). Complete the CSS Profile, too, if your college asks for it.
  • If you need a loan, borrow no more than 10% of projected after-tax monthly income in your first year out of school. Take out subsidized federal student loans first.
  • Appeal to your college for more aid if your financial situation has changed since you filed the FAFSA.

This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet.

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Anna Helhoski is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: anna@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski.