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August 08, 2014 8:53 AM Are Some Elite Colleges Understating Net Prices?

By Robert Kelchen

As a faculty member researching higher education finance, I’m used to seeing the limitations in federal data available to students and their families as they choose colleges. For example, the net price of attendance measure (measured as tuition and fees, room and board, books, and other expenses less any grants received) is only for first-time, full-time students—and therefore excludes a lot of students with great financial need. But a new graphic-heavy report from The Chronicle of Higher Education on net price revealed another huge limitation of the net price data.

The report, titled “Are Poor Families Really Paying Half Their Income at Elite Colleges?” looked at the two ways that some of the most selective public and private colleges calculate household income. About 400 colleges require students to file the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE (or PROFILE for short) in addition to the FAFSA in order to receive institutional aid; unlike the FAFSA, the PROFILE requires all but the lowest-income students to pay an application fee. Selective colleges require the PROFILE because it includes more questions about household assets than the FAFSA, with the goal of getting a more complete picture of middle-income and upper-income families’ ability to pay for college. This form isn’t really necessary for families with low incomes and little wealth, and can serve as a barrier to attending certain colleges -as noted by Rachel Fishman of the New America Foundation.

The Chronicle piece looked at income data from Notre Dame, which provided both the FAFSA and PROFILE definitions of income. The PROFILE definition of family income resulted in far fewer students in the lowest income bracket (below $30,000 per year) than the FAFSA definition. Because Notre Dame targets more aid to the neediest students, the net price using PROFILE income below $30,000 (the very lowest-income students) was just $4,472 per year, compared to $11,626 using the FAFSA definition.

Notre Dame reported net prices to the Department of Education using the FAFSA definition of family income, which is the same way that all non-PROFILE colleges report income for net price. But the kicker in the Chronicle piece is that apparently some colleges use the PROFILE definition of income to generate net price data for the federal government. These selective colleges look much less expensive than a college like Notre Dame that reports data like most colleges do, giving them great publicity. Reporting PROFILE-based net prices can also improve these colleges’ performance on Washington Monthly’s list of best bang-for-the-buck colleges, as we use the average net price paid by students making less than $75,000 per year in the metric. (But many of the elite colleges don’t make the list since they fail to enroll 20% Pell recipients in their student body.)

The Department of Education should put forth language clarifying that net price data should be based on the FAFSA definition of income and not the PROFILE definition that puts fewer students in the lower income brackets and results in a seemingly lower net price. Colleges can report both FAFSA and PROFILE definitions on their own websites, but federal data need to be consistent across colleges.

[Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

Robert Kelchen is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University.

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