Elite Colleges Expand Aid to Middle Class Families

Some of the nation’s most elite colleges, trying to ward off perceptions that they’ve become unaffordable to even high-income families, are bolstering their financial aid packages by offering grants to students whose parents earn as much as $180,000 a year.

Officials at these colleges, where costs can run $50,000 annually, say they are putting more money into aid because the price is deterring good students from applying. In the past three years, the schools have heavily promoted news that they will essentially give free rides for students from families making $50,000 to $60,000 or less, but they have been less vocal about what they can offer for families earning $100,000 or more.

“The misconception is you get financial aid only if you’re poor,” William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, told about 160 parents and their college-bound children last week at a recruitment event at a Worcester hotel also attended by admissions officers from Duke, Stanford, Georgetown, and Penn.

Fitzsimmons and the other officials said they are increasingly reaching out to families caught in the middle: those who are too wealthy to be eligible for federal grants, but not so wealthy as to be able to absorb the $50,000 a year for college, particularly with the rising costs of home ownership.

A decade ago, when the annual price for elite colleges hovered near $30,000, the five colleges gave little or no financial aid to families earning $100,000 or more, unless they had more than one child in college. Now, colleges say they typically cover between $20,000 and $30,000 of the $50,000 bill for comparable families.

At Harvard, the average need-based grant for families in the $100,000–$140,000 income range last school year was $21,693, up from $17,910 in 2004–05.

At Stanford, a family with an income of more than $100,000 with one child in college would get about $30,000 this academic year, compared with just $4,000 to $5,000 a decade ago. Stanford specifically targeted $5 million of its $10 million overall aid increase last year for middle- and higher-income families, its financial aid director said.

College officials define middle class as families who make $100,000 and more per year.

The colleges say the emphasis on aid to higher-income families has not come at the expense of lower-income students. Like Stanford, many have doubled or nearly doubled the money they put into financial aid during the last decade in order to help families from a wider range of incomes, with the biggest infusion of aid coming in the past three years.

Still, some financial specialists and school counselors urge parents to listen to colleges’ promises of financial aid with some caution.

“Until the financial aid award comes, no one is certain what it will be,” said Robert Bardwell, the immediate past president of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association and director of guidance at Monson High School. “I would hate for a kid to think a school they want to go to isn’t available to them because of the money. At the same time, I don’t want a kid strung along and being told, ‘Apply, apply, apply,’ and then get nothing or very little in aid.”

At the admissions directors’ presentation in Worcester, Fitzsimmons stunned many parents when he showed a slide of the income levels of Harvard’s 3,357 undergraduate aid recipients last academic year. About 40 percent of the recipients came from families who made more than $100,000, while just over 30 percent were from families making under $60,000. The highest income on the slide was $180,000 and above.

“I was very surprised that they offer financial aid to people who make more than $180,000,” said Kathy Daigle of Sterling, a registered nurse who said she and her husband, who owns a printing company, consider themselves middle class and view $180,000 as high income. “The cost is on everybody’s minds. It is expensive, and you have to weigh that.”

The admissions directors spoke about financial aid during a presentation delivered in rapid-fire monologues synchronized with slides. They also extolled their classes, facilities, and scenic campuses.

After the evening presentation at the Beechwood Hotel, the admissions officers spread out around the ballroom and an adjoining hall. Students plied them with questions, mostly about how to get into the colleges.

Parents hung back, preferring to let their children talk with the college officials face to face. But they said that the issue of paying for college was high on their agenda and that the aid pitch had eased their stress somewhat.

“I’ve told him to go for whatever college he wants, because I’m confident we’ll do whatever we can to afford it,” Mark Rutan, a software developer, said of his son, Pat, a senior at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough. “There’s the back of my mind where I say, ‘I’m worried about this.’”

A 1978 Yale graduate, Rutan said he earned a third of his college tuition in a summer job, when the annual cost was roughly $6,000. “He’s not going to make $17,000 in a summer,” he said of his son.

Those worries were also on display the next morning, when the admissions officers met with about 20 counselors from Worcester-area schools over breakfast at the hotel.

Sue Michaud, a counselor at Burncoat High in Worcester, said students from many middle-income families at her school are applying to state colleges and ignoring the top private schools because of price. “What kind of hope is out there for middle-class families?” Michaud asked.

The colleges will help, but the middle- and higher-income families still have to decide whether they are willing to make financial and personal sacrifices to contribute $20,000 or more a year, said Dan Warner, Stanford’s assistant dean of admissions.

“It’s a question of choice. Where’s the give and take?” said Warner, adding that some parents may have to decide whether to buy a bigger house or send their child to an expensive college.

Michaud, whose son is a high school senior, said she appreciated the forum as a chance to speak her mind.

“It was almost liberating as a middle-income parent to be able to say what I feel for the majority of middle-income parents,” Michaud said. “It’s a struggle.”