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Rising cost of tuition at Concordia hits low income families hardest

Cara Stadstad is a sophomore at Concordia College in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum1 / 3
Students whose families make less than $30,000 per year2 / 3
Students whose families make more than $110,000 per year3 / 3

The trend does not mark any intentional decisions by the college, said Eric Addington, Concordia’s financial aid director.

Concordia isn’t alone, either. The out-of-pocket cost of private colleges and universities has spiked faster for poorer students nationwide, according to an article published earlier this year in The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education news outlet.

The analysis, available on a Hechinger Report-sponsored website called Tuition Tracker, is based on a measure called average net price, or what students actually pay for college. Net price takes into account the annual cost of tuition, room and board, books and fees after scholarships and grants.

Across the country, students in the lowest income group, whose families make less than $30,000, are seeing the net price increase faster than peers in the highest income group, families that make more than $110,000, data show.

At Concordia College, students in the lowest income group saw an increase in average net price of 41 percent over four years, from 2008-09 to 2011-12, while actual costs increased 16 percent during the same time period for students in the highest income group.

State schools are seeing the same trend, Addington points out, and that’s true. Tuition Tracker shows low-income students at North Dakota State University and Minnesota State University Moorhead are also seeing their college costs increase the fastest.

But the data is more limited when it comes to drawing conclusions about public universities.

Net price, which all colleges have had to report since 2008, includes only first-time, full-time undergraduates – so primarily freshmen – who received Title IV federal financial aid. At state schools, it’s also only those who paid in-state tuition.

At NDSU, just 23 percent of full-time, in-state freshmen in 2011-12 received federal financial aid, according to the Tuition Tracker data. At MSUM in 2011-12, it was 50 percent.

At Concordia, that subgroup was more prominent: 563 of 722 in 2011-12, or 78 percent, so the data is more representative.

‘Not a school for the rich’

From a financial standpoint, it makes sense for a college to cater to wealthy students. They typically pay a greater portion of the sticker price and, because they may have gone to better high schools, often have higher test scores, which can improve college rankings, according to The Hechinger Report.

Addington said Concordia doesn’t approach recruitment that way.

“Some colleges do that,” he said. “They say, gosh if we could get more rich kids to come, that’d be great. But that’s probably, from my point of view … sort of unfair.”

“We’re pretty intentional about not being a school for the rich,” he said.

Twenty-two percent of Concordia students come from parents whose adjusted gross income is less than $50,000, and another 20 percent make between $50,000 and $80,000, according to the Concordia College website.

That population of students, who are most dependent on need-based aid, have been hardest hit by the unpredictability of the federal Pell grant program and the growing emphasis on merit-based aid.

Pell grants

The cost of college, at both private and public institutions, has been rising for years.

The tuition and fees for attending Concordia has risen by 63 percent between 2006-07 and 2014-15, Addington said.

But federal Pell grants, a significant source of need-based aid for low-income students, haven’t followed suit.

According to a study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the cost of college tuition and fees rose 570 percent between 1982 and 2011, while the maximum Pell grant increased just 219 percent.

“And so … as the cost goes up and that particular pot of money stays the same, the net price is gonna go up” for low-income students, Addington said.

Pell grants are not adjusted for inflation and are instead subject to decisions made by the Legislature, said Darcie Harvey, the senior policy analyst who did the report.

“One of the issues with Pell grants is that they have been very uneven and unpredictable in how they’ve increased,” she said, “… so it’s been very hard for families to count on or predict Pell grant aid.”

Merit-based aid

Another factor that has fueled the trend at many schools is an emphasis on merit-based aid over need-based.

Colleges offer merit-based scholarships to attract high-income, high-achieving students who might not be eligible for need-based aid. Again, these are the students who typically pay more and have higher test scores.

But as more funds are directed toward merit aid, less money goes to the poorest students.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that a greater proportion of students were receiving merit-based aid than the proportion receiving need-based, as of 2011.

Aid at Concordia has increased by 113 percent since 2006-07, but it’s difficult to break that down into merit- versus need-based, Addington said. Sometimes, it’s both.

Merit aid tends to be awarded on the front end of the admissions process based on grades and test scores. FAFSA paperwork, or the application for federal need-based aid, isn’t received until March.

So for “many, many families,” need is met by merit-based scholarships, Addington said.

And as college gets more expensive, more families have legitimate need.

“(With) family income having been stagnant over the last 10 years – as costs of college tuition, fees, and room and board continue to rise – the need increases every year,” Addington said.

Debt for decades

Cara Stadstad, a 19-year-old sophomore at Concordia, said she had to appeal for additional grant money this year “because I was so short on money.”

Stadstad, of Plentywood, Mont., had enough aid her freshman year, but this year the school offered her a grant of just $200 a semester on top of her Presidential Distinction Scholarship, which provides $7,500 a semester.

After the appeal, the school bumped the $200 to $2,500, but Stadstad’s family is still paying more than $3,000 out of pocket for this school year and had to take out a $5,000 loan.

Stadstad’s family rented out their farm two years ago when they couldn’t afford the costs of fertilizer and machinery. Her father now works as a truck driver for an oil company, and her mother works at the local K-12 school.

She came to Concordia for its renowned pre-med program, but thinks “it shouldn’t cost as much as it does to get a quality education.”

“Once we get out in the real world and have our careers, the first 10 years of our money … is gonna be spent paying back for our education,” she said.

Catrina Linehan, an 18-year-old freshman from Andover, Minn., feels the same way.

Linehan’s brothers also went to private schools – Tom, 24, to Bethel, and Ken, 26, to Northwestern – so her parents have now taken out three loans. Hers is $19,000 with 11 percent interest, she said, and she needed it despite getting merit-based aid and money from the FAFSA.

“It’s almost counterproductive to have these students pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college education when they probably won’t even be able to use it right away and they’re gonna be in debt for pretty much decades,” Linehan said.

She paused. “Which is depressing for someone who’s just a freshman.”

Grace Lyden

Grace Lyden is the higher education reporter for The Forum. Previously, she interned at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism in 2014. She welcomes story ideas via email or phone. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com.

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