Scholarship money has long been targeted at the extremely poor, bright or athletic. Sometimes, a family is not poor enough to receive funding from the federal Pell Grant program, and the students’ grade point average and test scores are not high enough to receive merit-based aid.
These families who could not cover their education cost with aid and scholarships, accepted loans but instead, many colleges now are stepping in to offer aid specifically for students in the middle zone.
California recently started a scholarship program to help middle-class students whose families earn as much as $150,000 a year. The Ready to Succeed scholarship in Pennsylvania offers as much as $2,000 for residents whose families earn up to $110,000, and Minnesota added money to its state grant program to provide up to $5,000 to an additional 2,200 students whose families bring in between $60,000 and $120,000.
Individual schools including Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and Vincennes University in Indiana are also adding to aid offerings to these students.
“Someone who would have been viewed as able to pay a decade ago without taking on too much debt, now those families are taking on too much debt and we need to try to help,” said Larry Pogemiller, commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
Taking a new approach to recruiting, colleges are now offering scholarships to students who have not qualified in the past.
About 20 percent of students whose families earned more than $65,000 accumulated $30,000 or more in student loans by graduation. This is according to a College Board analysis of federal data about the class of 2012, the most recent figures available.
Not everybody is on board with this change, because many of these middle-class students would still likely go to school without the extra cash.
Michelle Asha Cooper believes middle-class students get plenty of aid, in the form of education tax credits and merit scholarships that tend to go with higher-income students. Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education policy, leads a nonprofit with a special focus on underserved populations.
Although middle-class aid programs don’t appear to be boosting college enrollment, they are helping minimize debt, which could enable students to accept admission at a university they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. The extra cash can help sway families who are beginning to question the value of an expensive undergraduate education.
Harvard started this trend when six years ago it increased its grants for students whose families earned between $65,000 and $150,000, saying costs wouldn’t top 10 percent of their income.
“This very large segment of the population was being squeezed out,” said Bill Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid. “At $180,000, you can be broke when it comes to paying for college.”
California’s new Middle Class Scholarship Program covers up to 40 percent of public-college tuition and fees for students whose families make below $150,000. The state expects to spend more than $90 million on about 73,000 students this year.
Breana Weaver, a 20-year-old senior at University of California, Los Angeles, assumed there was a mistake when she found an extra $600 in her financial-aid statement, courtesy of the new program. Her single mom earns more than $100,000 as a manager at an aerospace company. Although most of her tuition is covered by academic merit scholarships, she pays food and housing costs out of pocket.
“We’re being acknowledged, that we need financial assistance as well,” Weaver said of middle-class students. “That’s pretty significant.”