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Financial Crisis Sends Tuition Costs Sky-High as Colleges Face Crunch

Not everyone is suffering equally: low and middle income students are particularly vulnerable in the current economic environment.

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This comes at a time when competition for admission and financial aid is high. Both the number of students applying for financial aid and the average amount of documented financial need is increasing. This means that low and middle income students, who usually do not have the benefit of SAT prep course, tutors, private schools, and other advantages, will have a harder time getting admitted this year. Utimately admitted students will be competing with many others for a slice of the same student aid pie.

Last year, some of the wealthiest schools in the country announced relatively generous student aid programs that will help students better afford tuition. This is largely in response to congressional and media pressure on unspent endowment income and high tuition rates. The bad news is, of course, that most colleges are not as well-endowed as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. Most schools will not be in a position to increase student aid without help from state budgets or a large and well-performing endowment, and neither is likely until the economy recovers.

At the state level, governors and state legislators are facing tough decisions when it comes to the state budget. Governors and state legislators may be tempted to favor the programs that are most popular with voters, and may have to decide which state student aid programs flat line, cut, or eliminate altogether. Unfortunately, voters are often more supportive of student aid programs that favor middle class and wealthy families.

These programs, such as Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, guarantee a substantial amount of grant aid to students that have "earned" it through their individual efforts, as demonstrated by their GPA, SAT, or ACT scores. Unfortunately, these programs tend to disproportionally favor the same students that already attend college at high rates -- young people from relatively wealthy and privileged backgrounds.

There are some hopeful signs, however. There are now many more supporters of making college more affordable in both Congress and the incoming administration. After record youth turnout at the polls, most are expecting that they will be advocates of investing, or at least not divesting, from higher education. But without strong, fast action at the federal level combined with a reprioritization of education spending and need-based financial aid on the state and institutional levels, a college education could fall out of reach of many qualified low and middle income families.

Pedro de la Torre III is an Advocacy Senior Associate at Campus Progress. He graduated from University of Texas–Austin.