College is Getting More Expensive for Those Who Can Least Afford It


The numbers surrounding college keep growing — and not always in a good way.

More employers expect you to have more degrees.

More students are taking on more debt.

And, perhaps most unfairly, more colleges are failing to meet the needs of the lowest-income students they enroll — while still giving money to more affluent students.

How is that possible?

It’s all revealed in Undermining Pell, a paper by Stephen Burd on behalf of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank helmed by Anne-Marie Slaughter.  

The study analyzed the net cost of college in the 2013-14 school year for 824 private nonprofit, four-year colleges and 591 public four-year colleges. It focused on incoming freshmen from families with incomes of $30,000 or less.

And the results are pretty shocking…

The Growing Cost of College — for Some

First off, let’s talk public school.

Though it’s often touted as a financially viable option for lower-income students, this report shows that could soon change.

“Nearly half of public four-year colleges examined now leave the most financially needy students on the hook for more than $10,000 per year,” Burd writes.

“Back in 2010-11, only about a third of these public institutions charged the lowest-income students that much.”

If those numbers continue to increase, lower-income students may soon be priced out of public colleges, which is worrisome enough.

But the decreasing aid and rising tuition at public colleges are dwarfed by the numbers at private colleges.

In 2013-14, a whopping 94% of private colleges charged their lower-income students over $10,000, and 72% charged over $15,000 — an amount equivalent to at least 50% of their family’s yearly income.

“It is often the poorest schools that enroll the largest proportion of federal Pell Grant recipients and charge these students high net prices because of their own limited resources,” Burd explains.

Those limited resources have certainly led to some desperate measures…

Because while these schools are decreasing aid for lower-income students, they’re offering it to affluent students!


“School officials believe it is necessary for the institutions’ survival,” Burd writes.

“It’s more profitable for schools to provide five ‘merit’ scholarships of $5,000 each to entice affluent students who will be able to pay the balance — even if they have less than stellar grades — than it is to provide a single $25,000 grant to a high-achieving low-income student,” he explains.


I mean, from a business standpoint, it makes sense. But these are nonprofit educational institutions — not corporations.

Doesn’t it make your blood boil to think an affluent student with an average GPA could receive aid over a low-income student at the top of their class?

“These actions fly in the face of national goals to increase access to higher education and help more students earn high-quality degrees,” writes Burd, and I bet most of you would agree.

What Can You Do to Lower the Cost of College?

Thankfully, the study doesn’t just bear bad news; it also lists the private and public colleges with the lowest net price for lower-income students.

If you’re wondering where to go to college, these schools might be a good place to start.

college tuition
Private colleges with a high percentage of Pell students and low net price
college tuition
Private colleges with a low percentage of Pell students and low net price
college tuition
Public colleges with a low net price

We’ve talked before about how some of the most elite schools offer the best financial aid, and these lists underscore that fact. (In other words, keep studying, and don’t be afraid to put a dream school on your list!)

Other ways to fund college?

Look into free colleges and college scholarships, or start a side hustle like this student.

Or, don’t go to college in the first place. Get an apprenticeship or pursue a high-paying job that doesn’t require a degree.

Your Turn: How do you plan to get around the rising cost of college?

Susan Shain, senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Visit her blog at, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.

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