Hill, Catharine B. Winston, Gordon C. Boyd, Stephanie
Year of Publication:
WPEHE Discussion Paper No. 66
College tuition is frequently compared, in press and politics, to the US median family income. That is, however, a highly misleading benchmark since schools with need-based financial aid rarely charge students from median income families the reported sticker price. Working from the financial aid records of individual students at twenty-eight highly selective private colleges and universities (COFHE schools), we addressed two questions: what do the highly able low income students at these schools actually pay, net of financial aid grants, for a year's education and how do these schools differentiate their prices in recognition of the different family incomes of their students - the concrete evidence of their dedication to equality of opportunity? The answer to the first question is that while there is considerable variety in net prices, many of these expensive schools charge their low income students very little (one, less than $800 a year for the average student in the bottom income quintile), making it quite reasonable for a highly able student to aspire to go to a very selective private college or university regardless of family income. The second answer also reveals considerable variety among schools. Virtually all of them charge students in the bottom income quintile a lower net price, on average, than they do their wealthier students, but at some, net price as a share of family income rises as incomes increase while at others it falls. Most, however, follow pricing policies that embody rough proportionality between net price and family income over the whole range of the student incomes, including those paying the full sticker price. The net prices that remain to be paid by aided students are covered, of course, by direct payment and 'self-help' - loans and student jobs. In these data, the error in the popular representation of tuition and income is clear: the average sticker price is 66% of median US family income but the average student at that level pays just 23% of family income.