Non-Need-based Financial Aid: Who Does it Really Help?

Yesterday, NACUBO (the National Association of College and University Business Officers) published a report on the increase in tuition discounting by independent universities. Tuition discounting is a means for universities to provide students with financial aid. What was clear from the data is that the surveyed universities continued to provide more financial aid on the basis of factors other than need. Behind this practice is the unfortunate desire for many colleges and universities to compete with one another for prestige with a kind of elitism that is self-serving rather than student-centered.

For years, colleges and universities have competed for this prestige – using the same strategy – of recruiting students with high ACT/SAT scores. The more prestige a particular institution accrues, the higher it can raise its rankings and tuition rates. Unfortunately, this process takes the focus away from what really matters.

As educators, our goal is to provide students with the best possible education with demonstrable changes to the individual graduate. The more colleges and universities fight to gain the title of most prestigious, the less they are paying attention to society’s needs to assure access to education for the students that really do need assistance.

Without sufficient need-based aid, many working class students cannot afford the increasingly higher tuition rates. Perhaps in part as a result, we are seeing a change in the choices of many students, particularly those at high risk; they are choosing proprietary schools rather than public or private institutions. It is easy to understand how students from working class families can feel: traditional colleges and universities are not going after them – so why would these students be interested in attending their institution? By not making access a primary goal, traditional colleges and universities are losing out – and so is society.

Proprietary schools are seeing their number of enrolled students grow very rapidly. The diversity of students at these proprietary schools shows that they are striving to provide all students with access to education. These schools attract students because they want to make sure that students get the educational experience they deserve. Their focus is on career and job readiness. In order to provide opportunity for their students, public and private colleges and universities would do well to follow the example of these proprietary institutions.

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