College graduation all about money, report finds


LOS ANGELES -- As tuition continues to outpace gains in financial aid, students' chances of attending a U.S. college and finishing with a degree increasingly have become linked to their families' income, the College Board reported yesterday.

The nonprofit group, in releasing two reports on college costs and financial aid, pointed out big gaps in graduation rates even among students who have high test scores. Those from families with the highest income and education levels finished college at more than double the rate of high-scoring students from the lowest socioeconomic grouping.

Sandy Baum, a College Board analyst, said the data show that college completion increasingly is "not about academic preparation, it's about money."

Not including room, board and books, the tuition and fees at four-year public colleges rose by a national average of about 6 percent from last year to $5,491 now.

Private four-year schools raised their tuition by an average of about 7 percent, to $21,235.

The gain in public college tuition was smaller than the double-digit increases of the past two years, when numerous states experienced budget strains and passed on more costs to students. Private college tuition increased at roughly the same rate as the previous year.

Average total charges, including room and board, across the country this year are $12,127 for public colleges and $29,026 for private schools.

Financial aid did not keep pace with tuition increases this year, continuing a trend, according to yesterday's reports. The average net tuition and fees - the price paid after financial aid is awarded - was $11,600 for private college students, up from an inflation-adjusted $9,500 10 years ago. Public college net tuition and fees averaged $2,200, increasing from a real price of $1,900 a decade ago.

College Board President Gaston Caperton, a former West Virginia governor, said increasing the number of college graduates is critical to U.S. economic growth.

Speaking with reporters by telephone, he pointed out that China produced more than eight times as many engineering graduates as the United States last year, and India graduated five times as many engineers.

"Affordability is essential to opportunity," Caperton said of the need to boost U.S. college enrollment and graduation.

As college costs rise, students and their families are borrowing more to cover the expenses, the report said. And the financial aid pool also is strained by policies that benefit affluent families, through tax credits and "merit" scholarships that reward students with higher test scores or grades.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said at the news conference that merit scholarships often go to students who would attend college anyway, while diverting funds from low-income students.

Citing federal statistics, Baum said the consequences of rising costs and family resources can be seen in the lives of students who scored high on mathematics exams as eighth-graders in 1988.

Within the lowest socioeconomic quartile, 75 percent of high-scoring eighth-graders eventually enrolled in college, but only 29 percent earned college degrees by eight years after high school graduation. Ninety-nine percent of high-scoring eighth-graders within the highest socioeconomic quartile attended college, with 74 percent earning degrees. High-scorers in the middle two socioeconomic groups entered college at a 91 percent rate, with 47 percent earning degrees.

University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann said, "The gap is also widening between high and middle," as costs rise and merit scholarships go to more affluent students.

"These families are stressed," she said of those with incomes between $50,000 and $100,000.

Peter Hong writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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