Public Flagships Are Offering More Middle-Income Scholarships. What Gives?

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Published by The Chronicle of Higher Education

The cost of a higher education is weighing ever more heavily on the minds of Americans. Nearly three in five people tell the Pew Research Center that “affordability of a college education” is a “very big” national problem, a jump of about 11 percent from 2016, when just one in two had the same concern.

Selective flagship universities appear to be getting the message. More of them are rolling out financial-aid packages aimed directly at students from middle-income families.

James E. Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, on Friday announced that students from families with an annual income of less than $80,000 will be able to attend tuition-free. Students whose families make less than $30,000 will have room and board covered as well.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently started a program that aims to lessen the debt load for middle-income students, in addition to its already robust program for low-income students.

The University of Texas at Austin this year expanded the income limits for students eligible for financial aid. And the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor started a similar program in 2017.

In announcing these programs, administrators have expressed the need to deliver a more affordable education to a wider swath of students.

But lowering what a student pays may help a university’s bottom line, too, said David W. Strauss, a principal at the Art & Science Group, a higher-education research-and-consulting firm.

Scholarships can be need-based, merit-based or some variety thereof, he said. Middle-income scholarships are seen as a public service, higher educations leaders will say, “but it can also be the case that the practical effect is to aid a family that’s still able to pay for some of the freight.”

In doing so, Strauss said, a university can still bring in the revenue that the award helps to make possible.

Even as they promote their commitment to access, universities are asking themselves how far they can stretch students’ pocketbooks to help cover the cost of their education.

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