The American college tuition system is very broken and in need of repairs, that much we know. Tuition costs are skyrocketing at rates that don’t match the country’s wage inflation rates, and student debt finally broke the $1 trillion mark last month. News that Cooper Union will start charging students tuition after more than a century of being tuition-free portray the messy state of college finances.

Hunter / Flickr |

Hunter / Flickr source

A new article from Bloomberg reveals an even uglier picture. John Hechinger and Janet Lorin write that colleges in the United States are using their financial aid resources to entice students from rich families, while forcing those who actually need the student aid to take on debt.

In an era when endowments are down and schools are starting to feel a financial strain, research analyst Stephen Burd says that schools are focusing their attention on trying to bring on students from high-earning families, “The pursuit of prestige and revenue has led [expensive schools] to focus more on high-income students.”

Colleges often have a portion of their financial aid budget devoted to rewarding academically-gifted students, but as we’ve covered before, most top-scoring students are those who come from richer families. Children from richer families start cognitive and academic preparation much earlier than their poorer counterparts, sometimes even before they enter kindergarten, and this preparedness helps them succeed academically all throughout their lives.

When these high-achieving kids from wealthy families score well in high school and are accepted to prestigious schools, they’re more likely to be eligible for scholarships and other merit aid, though rich families could theoretically afford to pay more for tuition.

Hechinger and Lorin spoke to Vassar College’s president Catharine Hill about why richer students benefit schools more:

Colleges use merit aid for talented middle- and upper-income students because it is less costly than pursuing similar prospects from poor families. Enrolling low-income students costs schools money because they are giving up a spot for those who can pay full freight — or close to it.

Hill recognizes that this kind of admission process contributes to socioeconomic problems in the nation, “…this kind of choice further contributes to the income inequality that has increased significantly in the United States over the last three or four decades.”

College degrees continue to be hugely expensive to acquire (and simultaneously valued at less for those who have them), and schools’ current admissions systems that favor the children of the rich do nothing to help bridge the income inequality gap. Education should be attainable, and not a way to buy the richest applicants.

Related Stories:

Kids From Wealthy Families Get Further Ahead

Is Student Debt Worth It?

What is Your Definition Of Rich?

Did you enjoy this article? Yes No
Oops! What was wrong? Please let us know.

Ask a Question

  • jrwells5

    The silence on this issue from this nation’s liberal, educated elite is deafening. Could freshman Senator (and former Harvard Law School professor) Elizabeth Warren be the only Member of Congress willing to speak out about this??

  • Daof5

    My wife and I make a very nice household income and we’ve never been offered a penny of aid, and we are now sending our third child through college. I would love to know where these funds are that are being offered to ‘rich kids’.

    • Amy He

      It’s not that schools are handing a stack of money to kids from rich families. The problem is that schools are offering high-achieving students aid based on their school performance, and high-achieving students mostly happen to come from high-income homes that can divert resources to preparing their children to do well academically. Meanwhile, low-income children who can’t manage to secure any merit-based aid will have to take on loans for already expensive school tuitions.