More public flagship universities directing aid to middle-income students

As more public flagship universities roll out tuition-free programs for low-income students, administrators are also announcing their intentions to make college more affordable for middle-income students. Exploring the growing interest in financial aid targeting middle-income families, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that these efforts can be seen both as a public service and a practical strategy to strengthen the university’s bottom line by attracting students who can pay for a portion of their education but might be reluctant to apply in the absence of programs to reduce their debt load.

Addressing the ‘unwelcome valley’

This expansion of aid marks a change for middle-income students, who have long inhabited “an unwelcome valley” of financial aid, notes The Chronicle. Middle-income families often earn too much to qualify for Pell Grants but too little to avoid federal loans.

Kelly Rosinger, an assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, says her research indicates that elite, private institutions have found middle-income scholarships to be an effective tool for increasing enrollment among those students. She suggests the rise in public colleges funding middle-income scholarships could come not only from a sense of duty to better serve state residents but also from positive peer pressure to follow other schools’ lead.

“If they’re seeing middle-class students leaving college with debt or not enrolling because it just costs too much or they would have to borrow too much to go,” Rosinger told The Chronicle, “they are not really serving all of their mission anymore.”

Awareness, sustained funding crucial

The Chronicle highlights the University of Virginia’s recent announcement that it would go tuition-free for Virginia families earning less than $80K as the latest such pledge. The University of Texas at Austin also has expanded its income limits for aid eligibility, as has the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

University of North Carolina’s Blue Sky Program is another recently launched scholarship initiative for middle-income students. The program builds on the university’s 15-year-old Carolina Covenant program, which seeks to eliminate the debt burden for students whose families make no more than twice the federal poverty level. Telling The Chronicle that for every low-income student supported by the Carolina Covenant, there are two middle-income students also reliant on aid, Stephen M. Farmer, UNC’s vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said, “we didn’t want those students to feel like as though they were a second thought to us.”

Such programs, however, face multiple challenges. Some struggle to make prospective middle-income students aware of the opportunities. Others have difficulty determining who qualifies as middle-income, given the interplay among “family assets, number of children in the house, and number of students in college.” Finding large, sustainable pools of funding also poses a challenge. Looking at UNC’s program, The Chronicle reports that Blue Sky will launch with a $5 million gift from former UNC President Erskine Bowles, but it’s not enough; UNC will need to raise another $15 million to sustain the program.

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