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This week of March 10, 2014, I was playing around with a new data tool, Tuition Tracker, produced by Holly Hacker of the Dallas Morning News and my Hechinger Report colleague Jon Marcus. The tool allows anyone to see the actual tuition charged to students of different income groups at every college and university in the United States. It lays bare how college tuition sticker prices are like hotel room rates or used car prices. Not many students pay them. The Tuition Tracker uses the four years of available data from the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPED) produced by the National Center of Education Statistics. The authors’ big takeaway was that universities are actually lowering tuition for high income students and raising it for low income students.

I wanted to see what was going on at the 10 richest, mostly highly endowed universities . So I created this chart by combining data from the Tuition Tracker with NACUBO’s endowment data.

Tuition increases by family income at the 10 most highly endowed U.S. Universities (2008-11)

Top EndowmentsUniversity (endowment)2008-09 Net Price for families below $30k*2011-12 Net Price for families below $30k2008-09 Net Price for financial-aid families above $110k2011-12 Net Price for financial-aid families above $110klow income tuition changehigh income tuition change
1Harvard ($30 billion)42328803214534980581%9%
2Yale ($19 billion)51877852285643644251%28%
3University of Texas ($18 billion)81848967209652359410%13%
4Stanford ($17 billion)31204501372863735744%0%
5Princeton ($17 billion)311083222460834153168%39%
6MIT ($10 billion)34004995371873846947%3%
7University of Michigan ($8 billion)614454312007123098-12%15%
8Columbia ($8 billion)4870120813986036551148%-8%
9Texas A&M ($8 billion)4902508918773191464%2%
10Northwestern ($7 billion)1282315633402374198622%4%

* Harvard data was missing for 2008-09. I used 2009-10 instead. For University of Texas, only Austin campus tuition figures were used. For Texas A&M, only College Station campus tuition figures were used. For University of Michigan, only Ann Arbor tuition figures were used.

Source: Tuition Tracker for tuition data and NACUBO for endowment data.

What I found is that, yes, these highly endowed universities are also hiking tuition bills for the poorest students whose families make less than $30,000. While they’re not lowering tuition for upper income students (except for Columbia University!), the tuition increases for wealthier students have been lower, on average, than for the poor students. I’ve highlighted in red the universities that are hiking tuition bills for low income students more than for high income students.

A few caveats and explanations of the data:

1) This federal IPEDs data is tracking only freshmen students who qualify for federal grants, loans and work study programs. There are many high-income students at these universities who are not included in the high-income tuition price. A good way of reading the chart is to say, “In 2009 Harvard charged a net-price tuition of $32,145 to freshman students from families who made over $100,000 and who qualified for some sort of federal aid. This net price is the sticker price minus Harvard’s own financial aid and discounts. It does not factor in the federal financial aid these students are receiving.”

Even if we expanded beyond this subgroup of high income students to the entire high income population at these schools, I believe the conclusion still holds true that low income students have suffered higher tuition hikes than high income students. Since the sticker price tuition at Harvard did not increase by 581% during these years, low income students still experienced more tuition inflation than high income students.

2) High income families. Many families making more than $110,000 live in expensive cities. It can be a real struggle to send multiple children to college especially if they are on the low end of those six figures.

3) Low income families. Not all families making under $30,000 are as low income as you might think. Many are divorced and the federal government only looks at the income of the custodial parent. The other parent could be a highly paid banker. The financial aid office of many universities requires that the non-custodial parent submit income information and factors that into the net tuition price charged.

Related stories:

College, federal financial aid increasingly benefits the rich

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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