Why the Middle Class Loses Out in the College Admissions Game


Michelle Lee, Opinion Editor

Higher education has always been viewed as a gateway to access better career opportunities and achieve a greater degree of economic success. With globalization and the U.S. economy moving away from blue-collar jobs, a college education is becoming more important than ever. As such, the college degree has become commoditized, the bare minimum required to even qualify for a job.

As more and more people apply to college, competition increases, admissions rates lower, and prices surge. Structural barriers and a lack of resources have always made higher education more inaccessible for low-income students—a fact that many institutions are trying to change—but the drastic increase in college tuition poses a particular challenge to middle-class students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the trends that we have seen for the past few years, specifically surrounding the shift away from standardized testing. Consequently, in the 2021 admissions cycle, applications hit record highs while admissions rates hit record lows, further cementing the domination of prestigious private universities at the top of college ranking lists (which unfortunately hold significant influence despite dubious ranking methodology). 

While that ranking draws more applicants than ever, it also comes with a hefty price tag. Most private universities cost almost $80,000 per year, the highest sticker price of any university in the world. While the rich barely bat an eye at the price, and those from lower-income families rightfully receive generous financial aid packages, the middle class is stuck between a rock and a hard place in the race for higher education.

According to reports from Opportunity Insights, a group dedicated to studying economic barriers, “students whose parents’ incomes are in the middle attended Ivy-plus colleges at rates much lower than the average, between 4.4% and 4.7%,” meaning middle-class students are underrepresented at elite institutions. In comparison, low-income and high-income students make up 7.8% and 10.8% respectively. Other studies have found that the percentage of middle-class students enrolled at elite universities has been steadily declining over time. The problem boils down to a simple one: middle-class families make too much to qualify for federal education grants and institutional financial aid, but not enough to pay the sticker price for private colleges. 

As a result, “Whether it’s possible for middle-income families to afford elite colleges or not, rising tuition costs are pushing them toward flagship public institutions,” said Bill Hall, president of Applied Policy Research Inc., a company that advises private nonprofit institutions on admissions and enrollment. 

It is no surprise that private institutions often have more resources and can better support the individual needs of their students simply because there are fewer of them overall. The top private institutions also have well-connected alumni networks and strong reputations among employers, helping many students gain a head start in their career development. Denying qualified students access to these resources simply because they cannot afford the astronomical price is ludicrous, especially for so-called nonprofit institutions.

A major part of the dilemma comes from how the Free Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA)—which is used to determine federal and institutional aid—calculates Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The FAFSA not only factors in pure yearly income based on salary into the EFC, but also all liquid assets and investment property besides the current home of residence. That means all stocks, savings, the equity built off of property held and rented to others, along with other assets, are included as well. All of these assets combined together can result in a fairly high-calculated EFC, but that assumes families are willing to sell their property and assets and even dip into their retirement savings in order to pay for college.

Frankly speaking, expecting middle-class families to dip into their retirement savings and assets to pay for college is ridiculous. Attending college should not be achievable only through accumulating debt. It should not have to be as significant of a financial decision as choosing to buy a house. College tuition, which already increases every year, is a yearly expense for a service. Thus, EFC should be calculated like any other yearly expense: off yearly income, and not assets that have been painstakingly accumulated for decades.

As it stands, many parents’ focus on sending their children to college starts from the moment their children are born. They have 18 years to save up enough for college, and in the meantime, try to pay for day-to-day expenses as well, including buying or renting a home in a good school district, and investing in extracurricular activities, all to try to secure the best opportunities possible for their children. Even after decades of saving, many families are still unable to keep up with the exponentially increasing costs of college tuition. As a result, emerging adults are shackled with debt incurred through a broken education system.

Restricting the calculation of EFCs to only yearly income would drastically increase access to higher education for both low-income and middle-class students and make attending a private, or public, college a more realistic and affordable decision overall. Parents will not have to risk their financial security, and young adults will not have to enter the world already burdened with debt. If colleges can afford to sit on an endowment of billions of dollars, then they can also afford to increase the accessibility of their financial aid and help students enter the next stage of their lives without a damper on their futures.


Graphic courtesy of JESUITROUNDUP.ORG