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Report says colleges use aid to lure wealthier students

Many colleges, including several Boston-area schools, are increasingly using financial aid to attract wealthier students at the expense of their low-income peers, according to a new report.

The report, released Wednesday by the New America Foundation, analyzed Education Department ­data for the 2010-2011 school year. It found that hundreds of colleges across the country expect low-
income students, those whose parents make $30,000 or less each year, to pay amounts equal to or more than their families’ annual salary.

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That forces the families and students to take on larger, often crippling debt, it said.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s occurring, and it makes sort of sense from an institution’s point of view — they want to be the best they can be,” said Stephen Burd, author of the report and a senior policy ­analyst for the foundation, which describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy institute.

The report singles out Boston University and estimated that the average net price, that is, costs after scholarships, for low-income families to attend was $23,932 per year. At BU, 15 percent of students receive Pell grants, the main federal college aid program for needy families.

BU uses a need-blind admissions process, meaning that students are accepted without knowledge of their families’ ­income.

“BU offers extremely generous aid packages [full-tuition or half-tuition scholarships] to the students it most desires, and leaves large funding gaps for others in which it is less interested, even if they have greater financial need,” the report says.

‘The federal government spends a lot of money on Pell grants . . . and colleges aren’t doing their part.’

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Colin Riley, a BU spokesman, said the report incorrectly interprets how the university distributes financial aid.

“This takes one data point and makes an inference about our policies that is inaccurate,” he said, adding “all of our applicants are eligible for merit aid,” or assistance based on academic, artistic, or athletic achievement.

The foundation’s report also listed high net costs for needy students at other local colleges, including: Northeastern University, where 15 percent of students receive Pell grants, at $20,912 per school year; and Stonehill College in Easton, at $20,612 for low-income students. Fifteen percent of Stonehill students receive Pell grants.

An NU spokesman declined to comment specifically on the report, saying the university had not had a chance to read it.

A Stonehill representative declined to comment.

At the same time, the report identified Massachusetts colleges that are dedicated to accepting low-income students and charging them what it called appropriate rates.

Burd writes that “leading the pack is Amherst College, where credit goes to the college’s former president, ­Anthony Marx, who made it his personal mission to make one of the most exclusive private colleges in the country one of the most socioeconomically diverse.”

At Amherst, 22 percent of students are awarded Pell grants, and low-income students pay an average net price of $448. At Williams College, lower-income students students pay an average of $5,402 per year; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, $5,672; and Wellesley College, $7,625.

Although the situation is better at public universities, these schools are increasingly employing similar tactics, accord­ing to the report, as they seek to make up for budget cuts in many states.

As a whole, the University of Massachusetts public school system allocates less financial aid for low-income students when compared to public schools throughout the country, it said. The average net price for low-income students who ­attend UMass is just under $10,000 per year.

Burd said that colleges have made a stark change in how they award financial aid over the past 20 years. “There has been this enormous shift over time in institutional priorities,” he said. “The federal government spends a lot of money on Pell grants to help low-income students, and colleges aren’t doing their part.”

Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@
globe.com
. Follow her on
Twitter @klandergan.
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