At some schools, the admissions process itself can work against low-income students, according to Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College and a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges.
Nugent says during her tenure at Kenyon, there were low-income students at the bottom of the admissions list who sometimes weren't accepted so the school could make room for more affluent students.
"Approximately 90 percent of the class, we really did try to meet their full financial need," she says. "In order to do that, there was some segment of [the] class where we had to take into consideration, 'Do we have some students who can afford to pay?' "
Nugent spoke with Morning Edition host David Greene, and Maricela Oliva, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio's Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.
Georgia Nugent: There are only a very few number of colleges which now or ever have been truly need-blind. The Ivies are in that category... What most colleges today are, they are what is called "need sensitive." It means that many colleges who have some resources — not enormous resources, but they are not impoverished — they do try to accept the class they would like to have, not taking into consideration financial need. But then, as you get toward completing the acceptance of the class, and your dollars are running out, you have to begin to take into consideration need.
On merit aid
Georgia Nugent: What I call "so-called merit aid." And here's what it means. Let's say that your full tuition at your college is $20,000. So you could take $15,000 of your financial aid and offer it to one quite needy student. Or, you could take your same amount of resources and you could offer $5,000 in financial aid to three affluent students. So, in terms of the college's revenue, offering the large package to the single student nets $5,000 for the college. Offering the small sweetener to the affluent student nets the college $45,000.
On the paradigm shift in higher education
Maricela Oliva: We've really moved from a position where people are interested in helping really capable students by supporting them through financial aid to a position that says, "If you want to go to college, it's a personal as opposed to a societal benefit, so you need to bear, increasingly, the cost yourself." It's a very different situation, but we've created it ourselves because we are dis-investing from higher education.
On the difficult position of universities
Georgia Nugent: In some ways, I think it's defensible. They've got institutions where their resource base is declining. They have to somehow find a way to pay their bills to offer the education they want to offer and consequently, they need to increase that net revenue.