Tuition Tracker database shows rising college costs hitting poor students the hardest

Just about everybody knows that college has gotten more expensive, but a comprehensive new analysis reveals that those costs are rising faster for some — mainly the poorest families who already face huge hurdles to higher education.

The compilation of federal student data — both “sticker price” and what students actually pay out of pocket after factoring in grants and scholarships — shows Florida schools generally following a nationwide trend of cost shifting triggered by cuts in federal grant programs and shrinking state budgets. At the same time, schools have increasingly awarded financial aid dollars to wealthy students.

It all adds up to this: All students are paying more, but the ones who most need financial help have seen costs rise at a higher clip.

“Schools are talking out of both sides of their mouths. They say that they support access, but in general they’re giving more and more of their aid to higher-income students,” said Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit think tank.

He branded the practice “affirmative action for the rich.”

Tracking Tuition

The Tuition Tracker database — available at — was compiled by a team of journalists from The Education Writers Association, The Dallas Morning News and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization focused on education issues.

It goes beyond simply looking at the advertised retail price of tuition, room and board to break down the “net price” families actually pay in five different income brackets.

While the Tuition Tracker can serve as a simple consumer tool, helping clear up some of the confusion that clouds college costs, it also reveals a largely unnoticed shift in pricing policies.

Wealthier students have been hit with tuition hikes and, on average, still pay more for college educations. But the rate of their “net price” hikes has risen slower than for poorer kids.

It’s a trend driven by business demands. Colleges use scholarships as sales incentives to lure students, including from well-off families who are still paying the heftiest tuition bill after that discount.

It’s also fueled by annual magazine rankings — a decidedly unscientific, but fiercely competitive, rating race. Offering more aid to students with high GPA and SAT scores can boost colleges in those rankings, which serve as a major marketing and recruitment tool for schools.

In many cases, critics say that aid money would be better spent opening college doors for lower-income classmates.

Federal aid cuts

Meanwhile, cuts to federal aid programs such as Pell Grants and tighter purse strings in many states have — for the most part — meant a double whammy for poorer students, who must dip deeper into their own pockets or take on bigger loan debts to afford college.

“We’re just exacerbating the income inequalities and educational achievement gaps,” said Deborah Santiago, co-founder and vice president of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit group that advocates for Hispanic students.

At the University of Florida, for example, the net price for the poorest of students (less than $30,000) more than doubled from $3,188 in 2008-2009 to $7,061 in 2011-2012. By comparison, the amount paid by families earning more than $110,000 increased by just a third. Still, in total dollars, they did shell out far more for their year of education — $15,349.

During that three-year period, the amount of grant money that UF directly provided to low-income students actually increased from $548 to $950. But federal aid dropped by an average of $566 for these students, leaving overall aid packages down slightly — at a time when tuition costs were considerably more.

“Nationally, are need-based grants keeping up with rising costs of education? I don’t believe that they are,” said UF Student Financial Affairs Director Rick Wilder. “Those are national issues that need to be addressed.”

Wilder said UF is committed to helping poorer students — particularly those who are the first in their family to attend college. The university has a needs-based scholarship program that covers all costs not paid for by other grants, which allows scholarship recipients to graduate completely debt-free. More than 1,300 students received the scholarship last year, Wilder said, at a cost of about $12 million.

Yet other numbers from UF may fuel criticism that colleges are giving too much money to the affluent. While UF increased the average aid it gave to poor students in recent years, it increased the average aid going to the wealthiest students (more than $110,000 family income) by almost $100 more. UF’s average aid to poor students is still more than what the average wealthier student gets, but the numbers are close: $950 vs. $881.

Recession rise

Not surprisingly, the Tuition Tracker shows college costs overall rose dramatically during the recession — a price surge partially fueled by deep budget cuts in state legislatures around the country. For example, one annual survey done by researchers at Illinois State University found that Florida lawmakers chopped higher education funding by nearly 25 percent between 2008 and 2013.

Florida lawmakers have also raised the college admission test scores to qualify for lottery-funded Bright Futures scholarships.

The Miami Herald reported last week that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has revived a long-dormant investigation into the Bright Futures program. The investigation focuses on whether the scholarship’s eligibility criteria discriminates against black and Hispanic students, who have lower average SAT scores than their white classmates.

In applying for financial aid, some college officials say higher-income families have benefitted from knowing how to work the system. When a particular college offers a financial aid package to a prospective student, it’s not necessarily the final offer. Families have the right to haggle over their “net price.”

As a result, they are able to obtain additional money by pitting institutions against one another, and negotiating for the best aid package.

This phenomenon is occurring even as many colleges and universities contend they’re less able to help low-income families financially. Higher-income families also disproportionately benefit from the federal government’s tuition tax breaks.

What’s affordable?

When it comes to affordability, local community colleges have typically been one of the best deals around. Schools such as Miami Dade College are still far cheaper than other colleges, but there, too, costs are rising. According to Tuition Tracker, the net price for the poorest students at MDC has gone from $12,973 to $13,627.

MDC student Yuri Velasquez said he’s noticed the more-expensive tuition. Velasquez previously attended MDC back in 2005, and he said he remembers being able to pay for a full-time semester for about $1,000 or less. The prices of classes have practically doubled since then, he said.

And Velasquez, like many adults who go back to school, has found that he no longer qualifies for the Pell Grants he received when he was younger. Velasquez’s job as a healthcare education counselor lands him in the second-lowest Tuition Tracker income bracket ($30,001 to $48,000) but he said he didn’t qualify for any need-based aid.

And so, Velasquez is, for now, going to school part-time.

“It’s coming out of my pocket, so I can’t afford like three or four classes,” he said.

Broward College vice president Angelia Millender insists her school remains affordable. Millender said the federal government’s net price calculations are misleading when it comes to community colleges.

Millender correctly noted that net price includes “all sorts of incidental living expenses, which really have nothing to do with the direct cost of education.” In addition to tuition and books, net price also includes costs such as room and board and transportation — essentially, it totals up what the complete cost of being a college student is for that year.

Millender said such calculations can serve as a valuable warning when considering a pricey school — a reminder to students that, besides tuition, there will still be other additional expenses to absorb.

But at community colleges, Millender stressed that many of those expenses don’t apply. Many students live and eat at home, for instance. And the cost of taking classes at Broward College is still modest, with tuition and fees costing about $2,500.

Add in $1,200 for books and supplies, and the total bill is still far less than the maximum Pell Grant award of $5,645. That means the neediest students get enough in federal grants to attend full time and still receive a refund check of nearly $2,000 that they can use toward food or gas money.

“Those net prices do us no justice,” Millender said.

FIU ‘net’ costs

Florida International University also says its “net price” numbers can be misleading — though for a different reason. FIU’s vice president for enrollment, Luisa Havens, says the school made a “miscalculation” when submitting its 2008-2009 cost numbers to the federal government.

For that year, federal figures show the net price for FIU’s poor students as $1,866. Havens said the real number was in fact $5,882.

Either way, the costs are certainly rising. The net price for those same students three years later was $8,811.

There are some limitations to the Tuition Tracker database. For example, the net price numbers it shows can skew the definition of “rich” or “affluent” by using only the basic measure of overall family income.

Though some advocates worry about colleges awarding too much aid to households with six-figure incomes, many of those households also struggle to pay for college.

Important variables left out of the “affluent” equation include how many children a family has, and how many of them are in college at the same time.

Sharyn Zimmerman is in the Tuition Tracker’s highest income bracket, $110,000-plus. Still, Zimmerman, who lives in Pembroke Pines, said the family had to be strategic to pay for college for their two children.

When state lawmakers in recent years reduced the value of Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships, Zimmerman’s son took a part-time job while attending the University of Central Florida.

A few years before that — back when Bright Futures still covered up to full tuition at state schools — Zimmerman’s daughter was considering the University of Miami. The cost of attendance at UM these days is nearly $61,000, although students of all income levels usually receive some financial aid.

Zimmerman said the family wasn’t willing to spend what UM costs, and her daughter ended up at the more-affordable University of Florida instead.

“The University of Miami offered her a 50 percent scholarship,” Zimmerman said. “But 50 percent of a lot was still a lot.”

This report was supplemented with material from The Education Writers Association, The Dallas Morning News and the Hechinger Report. It also includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald. Sign up by going to