Wealthier students can afford to pay their way through college; lower-income students, meanwhile, have ample financial aid opportunities to help with costs. Middle-class students, on the other hand, may be stuck somewhere in the middle.
At the Washington Post, Jeffrey Selingo asks: “What happens to those families just on the other side of the low-income cutoff for many financial aid programs?” Selingo points to the middle ground many middle-class families find themselves in: making too much money to qualify for Pell Grants, but not enough money to totally cover the cost of college. In many cases, the amount of “unmet need” these families and students find themselves with is upwards of $10,000 per year.
The resultant college campuses increasingly resemble a socioeconomic “barbell:” many low-income students at one end, wealthier students at the other, and a slim, less-populous middle class group in the middle.
“They are getting squeezed on both ends because they barely miss Pell Grants and they are not the types of students getting grants from colleges themselves,” said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University and an expert on student aid.
This trend has manifested itself on college campuses in the form of a socioeconomic “barbell”—with affluent students who can pay full price or close to it on one end and poor students who receive federal Pell Grants and max out their loan eligibility on the other end. Fewer students are in the middle, especially on the lower end of that middle just above the cutoff for Pell Grants.
For years, merit aid has helped colleges maintain the middle class on their campuses by giving institutions the flexibility to spread aid around to many students in the form of scholarships, while at the same time pulling in some tuition revenue from those students. But as tuition prices have climbed, colleges found they were discounting their tuition too much and their net tuition revenue—the amount of cash actually received from students or their outside aid—was flat or declining. So they moved their merit aid up the income scale in order to capture students, and more revenue, from higher-income families.
Selingo notes that one college, Franklin & Marshall, successfully increased its middle-class enrollment from 9 percent to 13 percent over just four years. Other institutions, however, claim they can’t readily afford to devote much money to both low-income and middle-class students—though, as Selingo points out, “The issue is that some colleges don’t want to pay for such investments by taking away aid from higher income students who enroll only because they are enticed with generous packages.”