Higher Education

The students disappearing fastest from American campuses? Middle-class ones

Anxious about diversity and their bottom lines, more schools offer money to the middle

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middle class students

Though he is considered middle class, Alec Scicchitano knew he “needed to go to a university that would give really good financial aid.” He qualified for a new tuition scholarship at the University of Virginia for students from families with incomes of up to $80,000.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Alec Scicchitano may have been considered middle class, but it was still going to be hard for him to afford college.

The son of a single mother who’s a writer, Scicchitano knew he “needed to go to a university that would give really good financial aid” — something many students in the middle class assume they can’t get.

And he didn’t. In his first two years in  college, he got only a small break on tuition. Scicchitano started burning through his savings, though he at least saved money on room and board by commuting from home.

Then, this fall, the University of Virginia began a full-tuition scholarship for in-state students from families earning up to $80,000 a year, and Scicchitano transferred there to major in public policy — and to avoid incurring thousands of dollars in student loans.

He said it would have been “heartbreaking” if he’d gotten into his dream university but couldn’t pay for it, Scicchitano said.

The proportion of middle-class students like Scicchitano at colleges and universities has been quietly declining, sharply enough that some institutions — worried about the effect on campus diversity and their own bottom lines — have started publicly announcing special scholarships to cover all or most of their tuition.

It may seem counterintuitive to hear that efforts to increase diversity include enrolling more students from the middle class, as opposed to those from families with the lowest incomes. In fact, the proportion of students on college campuses from the lowest-income families is going up, the Pew Research Center reports, while the share of students from the middle has fallen in the last two decades from 48 percent to 42 percent at private, nonprofit institutions, and from 48 percent to 40 percent at public four-year universities.

At the most selective institutions, middle-class students have been displaced by wealthier ones, a study by the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute found. The proportion of those from families earning $53,600 to $98,810 slipped from 25 percent of enrollment in 1999 to 18 percent in 2016.

Related: Colleges provide misleading information about their costs

The proportion of middle-class high school graduates heading straight to college at all — meaning those from families in the middle 60 percent of income — is gradually declining, sliding from a high of 67 percent in 2010 to 62 percent in 2015. Though it rebounded to 65 percent in 2016, that number has been overtaken by the proportion of high school graduates from families at the lowest income level who enroll in college.

Middle-class high school students give a number of reasons for forgoing higher education, according to an analysis of federal data by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce: 4 percent cited family obligations, 6 percent planned to take a gap year before enrolling, 8 percent said they weren’t ready and 20 percent said they just didn’t want to go.

Fully a quarter of middle-class high school students who don’t plan on college said it was because of the expense. The inflation-adjusted published price of college tuition, fees, room and board between 1999 and this year increased 54 percent at private nonprofit and 78 percent at public universities and colleges, according to the College Board. The median income of middle-class families, when adjusted for inflation, Pew says, hardly budged during that general period of time.

“There has been a lot of concern about that group in the middle, which has only gotten greater as the costs have gone up,” said Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and a former university financial aid officer.

Related: Universities that are recruiting older students often leave them floundering

Middle-class parents increasingly still have college debt to contend with themselves; people age 40 to 49 hold nearly $279 billion worth of student loan debt, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports; 50 to 59, more than $177 billion; and over 60, more than $85 billion.

“The pressures on middle-class families have been huge around going to college. That’s been the case since the 1990s, and it’s gotten only worse and worse since 2000 and particularly since 2008,” the time of the last recession, said Caitlin Zaloom, associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and author of “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost.” “It’s not surprising to me that there are some families that are trying to find another path.”

This matters because students who don’t go to college will make about $1 million less over their lifetimes than their classmates who do, said Jeff Strohl, the Georgetown Center’s director of research. That will make it hard to pay for higher educations for their own kids at a time when many jobs require them, he said, creating a disturbing cycle.

“As the world upskills, we should be very concerned,” Strohl said.

A waning commitment to college among the middle class is also a big problem for colleges themselves, which already face dramatically declining enrollments. There were more than 2.9 million fewer college students nationwide in the spring semester than there were at the last peak, in the fall of 2011, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks this.

Related: Colleges and states turn their attention to slow-moving part-time students

middle class students

The University of Virginia is among several institutions that have started offering full-tuition scholarships for students from middle-class families.

Middle-class students arrive better prepared than low-income students, experts point out, having typically gone to better-resourced public or private high schools. Federal data show they are less also likely to drop out. They bring higher grade-point averages and standardized test scores on which college rankings are partly based. And unlike students from the poorest families, middle-income ones can afford to pay at least part of the tuition, plus room and board, from which institutions earn important revenue.

“The fundamental issue [for colleges] is avoiding a bifurcated situation where you have the higher-income students subsidizing a lot of lower-income students” and not enough people in between, said Greg Wolniak, associate professor at the University of Georgia Institute of Higher Education.

Alarmed by this trend, some universities and colleges have started channeling more financial aid to middle-class students.

The amount of financial aid at four-year institutions that goes to students from families making $48,001 to $75,000 per year rose 25 percent between 2009 and 2017, the last period for which federal figures are available. To students from families making $75,001 to $110,000, it went up 32 percent.

“This is where a lot of the competition is playing out among institutions: trying to get the students coming in who are really solid prospects academically and who are going to pay part of the freight,” Wolniak said.

That increase in aid also means that, contrary to public perception, the actual cost of college for middle-class students did not go up during that time; it fell, by between 2 and 5 percent, depending on their parents’ income.

Institutions “are trying to just find the price point at which you will come here and at least pay me something,” said Jessica Thompson, director of policy and planning at The Institute for College Access & Success, or TICAS.

Trouble is, many middle-class families get no further than the published prices, which may discourage them from even applying, said Melody Bianchetto, UVA’s vice president for finance.

That’s where student Esther Harris paused. UVA was her top choice, but “if I was going be in a lot of financial debt, that … would have discouraged me,” she said. Instead, she’s getting the middle-class tuition break — “I think that definitely helped me pick UVA” — and is now a double-major there in computer science and global studies of the Middle East and South Asia.

middle class students

Esther Harris qualifies for a new middle-class scholarship at the University of Virginia. Harris says UVA was her top choice, but “if I was going be in a lot of financial debt, that … would have discouraged me.”

The university has “had a great package” of financial aid for students in the middle for a while, Bianchetto said. But it’s trying to attract more of them “who could come to UVA [but] think that they can’t afford it. So part of it is also being able to simplify that message so that we can make sure that high school students know if you can get into UVA and you’re in these categories, we’re going to help take care of you.”

Related: Luxury private student housing further divides rich and poor on campuses

Under the new approach, an estimated 50 additional students from middle-class families have had their tuition and fees waived this year, on top of about 1,450 who already did, the university said.

The same thinking also led private Rice University to create a program that, beginning this fall, is covering full tuition for students from families with incomes of up to $130,000 per year and half of the tuition for students from families with earnings from $130,001 to $200,000.

In the past, a prospective student may have “come to the conclusion that Rice is really the best place for them,” said David Leebron, president of that school, whose advertised full cost of attendance is $67,102. “And the response [from his or her parents was] going to be, ‘We really can’t afford it.’ ”

At Rice, too, many middle-class students were already getting financial aid, Leebron said. “The concern was how that information is going to get to the parent.”

The issue on his campus wasn’t filling seats, he said, even though the university is in the midst of an expansion; it had an enviable 27,068 applications this year for 950 places in its freshman class. “But for some colleges, it is,” he said.

“It’s not as though we had some immediate problem that needed to be solved,” Leebron said. “But we were concerned about this trend of the hollowing out of the middle class. When we tried to peer into the future, we realized that if nothing changes, that’s what we’re going to see.”

Colorado College has already seen this shift; while the total number of applicants to the private, liberal arts school has tripled, said Mark Hatch, vice president of enrollment, fewer of those candidates come from the middle.

“We’ve seen that group stop looking at us at the same rates,” Hatch said. “They’re not as plentiful in the applicant pool, and when they’re offered admission, they’re thinking, ‘This isn’t very realistic,’ ” since the published full cost of attendance is $74,760.

So the college announced in August that it would provide free tuition for students from Colorado families with adjusted gross incomes of $60,000 to $125,000, beginning next fall; for students from Colorado with family incomes between $125,000 and $200,000, tuition will be no more than the cost of attendance at the public University of Colorado.

“We are going after that cohort in a very aggressive way,” Hatch said.

As at Rice, he said, “For the most part we do already do this.” But making a big splash about it gets the word out.

“We care deeply about the socioeconomic diversity within our student body,” Hatch said. “If we have a college campus with the barbell effect where you have full-pay at one knob and full-need at the other bulb and that thin bar in the middle, it doesn’t serve your institution as a living-learning environment.”

On a practical level, he said, “We recognize we’ve had an overdependence on full-pay students, and that leaves us very vulnerable if we go into a recession.”

That’s because more students on the very lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder would need help, while there are only so many families at the very top.

Public universities in particular have another worry about maintaining a pipeline to good higher educations for the middle class: Middle-class parents vote.

“It matters a lot to people in the state,” said Thompson, of TICAS. “There is a lot of pressure from state legislatures and the public that have a desire for and expectation of access to institutions they’ve been supporting for decades.”

As for Scicchitano, at UVA, he still has to pay for room and board, but he knows he won’t end up in so much debt that he’ll end up in a career he doesn’t like in order to pay it off.

“I don’t feel pressured to go onto Wall Street or to go into a high-paying consulting job,” he said.

“I feel like I’m more free to follow what my passions are. I’m more free to pursue a career that will actually improve the common good.”

This story, about middle class students, was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with VPM. Additional reporting by Megan Pauly. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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