Surprising Patterns In Who Gets Merit-, Need-Based Aid From Colleges

In order to increase enrollment, colleges are handing out discounts to students who may not need the money, a process that favors wealthier (often white and Asian) students, according to a new analysis in the Hechinger Report.
Many colleges use sophisticated algorithms to decide the size of tuition discounts, designed to enhance enrollment. Photo Credit: Fotobieshutterb / Adobestock

Suzanne Potter
California News Service

A new analysis of college enrollment data in the Hechinger Report shows that people are paying vastly different amounts for the same education – because of tuition discounts masquerading as merit aid or scholarships. The data show that much of the so-called merit-based aid goes to wealthier students who are often Asian or white.

Robert Massa is an expert in college admissions at U-S-C and former dean of admissions at Johns Hopkins University. He says the name “merit scholarship” is a bit misleading.

“I say so-called merit program because it’s really not merit and really not rewarding students for the great job they’ve done in high school as much as they are trying to influence your enrollment decision away from one institution to another.”

Data released in July from the Department of Education shows that tuition discounts have been escalating in recent years – and can be worth up to 30-thousand dollars off the sticker price. At private nonprofit four-year institutions, 62 percent of Asian students, 59 percent of white students, 53 percent of Hispanic students and 51 percent of Black students received institutional aid.

Massa says lower-income students – who often come from communities of color – receive fewer tuition discount offers, and are offered need-based aid instead.

“One of the ways that colleges and universities justify providing scholarships to students who have low or no financial need is that their net revenue from those students will help to pay for students who do not have the resources,” Massa says.

At private nonprofit schools, 57 percent of undergraduates received institutional aid in the 2019 school year. Ultracompetitive schools don’t need to offer enrollment incentives. At public four-year schools, more than a third of all undergraduate students received institutional aid in 2019 – an average discount of $5,200 dollars.