Elite colleges get lion's share of U.S. funds for financial aid

Struggling counterparts have more poor students, receive far less money


If there is any grand, elegant logic behind the federal government's disbursement of more than a billion dollars in college aid, then Maria Hernandez is humble enough to confess that it has escaped her.

Consider her point. Poverty is hardly a rarity among the students of California State University, Fresno, where she is the director of financial aid. Many come from families working in the fields nearby, on farms where students spend their summers and winter vacations harvesting peaches and sugar beets to stay in school.

About three hours and a world away sits Stanford University. Far fewer of its students are poor, yet the federal government gives Stanford about seven times as much money to help each one of them through college under one program, 28 times as much in another, and almost 100 times as much in a third, government data show.

"Pretty sad," Hernandez says.

Similar discrepancies emerge across the nation, adhering to a somewhat counterintuitive underlying theme: The federal government typically gives the wealthiest private universities, which often serve the smallest percentage of low-income students, significantly more financial aid money than their struggling counterparts with much greater shares of poor students.

Brown University, for example, got $169.23 for every student who merely applied for financial aid in order to run its low-interest Perkins loan program in the 2000-2001 academic year. Dartmouth College got $174.88; Stanford, $211.80. But most universities did not get nearly that much. The median for the nation's colleges was $14.38, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data on the more than 4,000 colleges and universities that receive some form of federal aid.

Nearly 200 colleges received less than $3 an applicant for financial aid. The University of Wisconsin, Madison got 21 cents.

Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities - and all the other members of the Ivy League, for that matter - were also given five to eight times the median to pay their students in work-study jobs. That is money the institutions get directly, to be spent on behalf of needy students.

And they got five to 20 times the median amount of grant money to look after the everyday needs of their poor students, despite having some of the largest endowments in the nation, if not the world. (Harvard and Yale both have endowments of more than $10 billion. Princeton's is $8.7 billion.)

Such disparities have been a sore point among universities for years, leftovers from an era when federal money was given to colleges on an individual, almost negotiable basis. Now, for the first time in more than two decades, the nation's financial aid officers are calling for the imbalances to be wiped away, replaced by a system that steers financial aid toward the universities that poor students attend, rather than those with the biggest reputations.

"We're saying, `Hey, is this really fair?'" said Dallas Martin, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. "The money ought to follow where the neediest students are. That's the equity piece, and that's what's missing."

At first glance, it might seem that some universities receive more money simply because they cost more to attend. But try telling that to Heather McDonnell, director of financial aid at Sarah Lawrence College, which costs just as much as its Ivy League competitors, yet in one category received only a sixth as much money as any of them. "It's not even touching reality," McDonnell said. "It's not even acknowledging any changes in the economy and how my families are doing."

Even some of the beneficiaries of the imbalance concede that it is not entirely rational, and say they would consent to shedding a few dollars for the sake of parity.

"How could we complain, really?" said Sally C. Donahue, director of financial aid at Harvard. "We have been very fortunate to receive the money that we have. And the barriers facing low-income students are considerable, so anything increasing their access to college nationally is something we would support wholeheartedly."

It is the magnitude of the disparities that irks many college officials. At most universities, for example, whenever low-income students get money from the federal government under the Pell grant program, the college receives some, too - to help the student with tuition, books, housing, meals and so forth.

For every Pell dollar one of its students received in the 2000-2001 academic year (and they could each get up to $4,000), the median college got an extra 7 cents. Harvard got 98 cents. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology got $1.09. Princeton got $1.42.

At the other end of the scale sit institutions such as the City University of New York, which had the most financial aid applicants in the nation that year. It got 4 cents on the dollar. More than 50 colleges got a penny.

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