College Tuition? Gumption Won't Cover It

Even for those poor kids who sweat through honors calculus, surpass 1,200 on the SATs, and graduate class valedictorian, getting a BA is far more difficult than it used to be. At the country's top 146 colleges and universities, only 3% of the student body are from families in the country's bottom quarter of wage-earners, according to an Educational Testing Services report. Meanwhile, 40% of this year's freshman class at the nation's top 42 state universities come from families making more than $100,000, up from about 32% in 1999, says the Higher Education Research Institute. "I used to be able to tell my kids they would be able to figure out how to pay for school," says Joan Becker, associate vice-provost at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "Now it's getting more and more difficult, even at the state schools."

Why is it so much harder for the brightest low-income kids to afford college? Start with rising costs. Over the past decade, tuition rose 47% at public four-year colleges and 42% at their private counterparts, according to the College Board. Last year alone, the cost of public college jumped 14.1%. The most elite schools, with their sizable endowments, can afford to supplement student-aid packages. Harvard University, for example, just cut its required parental contribution for families with an income under $40,000 after President Lawrence H. Summers worried publicly in February that higher education was widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.

At state schools, though, even for those on the elite roster, aid packages are decreasing in the face of tuition hikes. For the 2003-04 school year, total state appropriations for higher education actually declined 2.1%, to $60.3 billion, according to a survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University. It's the biggest drop in 11 years.

What's more, the federal Pell Grant program, founded to equalize educational opportunities for all Americans, is funding far less. Shortly after the program's 1972 introduction, qualified students could count on the grant to foot 84% of their public-college tuition. Today, the Pell covers a bit less than 40%. The shortfall between the maximum Pell Grant award -- $4,050 last year -- and a low-income families' unmet need averages $6,200 annually at private schools and $3,800 at public four-year colleges, says Brian K. Fitzgerald of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance.

Meanwhile, working students are penalized. Those who slog away in minimum-wage jobs in high school -- often to help their parents with expenses -- find their Pell Grant eligibility reduced because the government counts their hours as earned income. Take Larissa Rybus, 19, a first-year student at Ohio's Kent State University. Her father made $16,000 last year as a self-employed carpenter. A high school honors student, Rybus fears that financial aid, scholarships, and a $6.50-an-hour pet-store job won't add up to enough to see her through the requirements for an education degree. Says Rybus: "I'm working so many hours I can barely keep my grades up for my scholarships."

For the children of the working poor, getting an education has become not so much a test of intelligence as one of endurance.

By Jessi Hempel in New York

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