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PROOF POINTS: Surprising patterns in who gets merit and need-based aid from colleges

PROOF POINTS: Surprising patterns in who gets merit and need-based aid from colleges

The Hechinger Report

Jill Barshay
July 31, 2023
The bottom line on college tuition is that there is no bottom line.
At most four-year institutions, admitted students are quoted all sorts of different prices. Often masquerading as “merit aid” or “scholarships,” the discounts are aimed at persuading students to attend, much like online retailers dangle coupons to persuade you to purchase the items in your shopping cart.
The college coupons are a lot larger than what you might get at Target –  sometimes knocking off $30,000 or more from the published “sticker” price. The discounts are tailored by commercial algorithms that use each prospective family’s circumstances to find the right number that will tempt a student to enroll. That’s why college students on today’s campuses are paying different prices for their degrees, just like we pay different prices for our airplane seats.
Tuition discounts have been escalating in recent years, according to Department of Education data released in July 2023.  More students are getting even more money knocked off their college bills. At the same time, colleges are distributing these tuition discounts unequally. White and Asian students were much more likely to receive this institutional aid than Black and Hispanic students, the data shows.
At private, nonprofit colleges and universities, where discounting is most prevalent, a whopping 57 percent of undergraduates received institutional aid in 2019-20, unchanged from the previous financial aid survey data in 2015-16. But the average tuition discount that each student received grew to $20,800 from $16,200 during this time period. At public four-year institutions, more than a third of all undergraduate students received institutional aid in 2019, up 3 percentage points from 30 percent in 2015. And the average discount grew to $5,200 from $4,900.
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