Pitt, Penn State beyond reach of poor

Debra Erdley
| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, long among the highest-priced state flagship universities in the nation, may be pricing themselves out of serving the state's poorest students, a study concludes.

The schools ranked among the nation's 10 priciest public colleges for low-income students, according to a study released on Wednesday by the New America Foundation.

The study, “Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-income Behind,” examined Department of Education statistics that list the average net price — the price tag after grant aid — for students with family incomes of $30,000 a year or less.

At Pitt and Penn State, the net price amounts to about $17,000 a year.

Pennsylvania's subsidies to higher education are among the lowest in the nation, said Stephen Tritch, chairman of Pitt's board of trustees.

“It's not surprising to me that Pennsylvania schools are high on the list, given that,” he said.

The study found some public colleges excel at keeping costs low for needy students. They include the University of North Texas at $1,730 and the University of North Florida at $3,046.

Tritch said officials at Pitt, which distributed $20.99 million in need-based scholarships and $21.98 million in merit-based scholarship aid in 2011-12, plan to emphasize scholarships for needy students in fundraising campaigns.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the school's state subsidy is “substantially less than it was in 2000” and is among the lowest in the nation.

“We have more student need than we do funds to give away,” Powers said, adding that scholarship fundraising is a priority.

Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst for the New America Foundation who penned the study, said federal statistics show colleges shifted the majority of their scholarships from need- to merit-based grants between 1995-96 and 2007-08. The foundation is a nonpartisan think-tank.

“The analysis shows that hundreds of colleges expect the neediest students to pay an amount that is equal or even more than their families' yearly earnings,” Burd wrote.

In Pennsylvania, 10 of the state's 14 state system universities charged the poorest students net prices in excess of $10,000 a year.

“Often, they get priced out of a college education entirely,” said Mark Kantrowitz, a Cranberry-based author who writes extensively about financial aid issues.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996

or derdley@tribweb.com.

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