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'Melt' Found in Middle-Income College Enrollment

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Since the late 1970's, fewer students from middle-income families have pursued postsecondary education, and those who do have tended to favor less-costly public institutions, a new study concludes.

The study, commissioned by the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, a coalition of 32 of the nation's most selective colleges and universities, says that the group's member institutions and others similar to them have experienced the greatest decline in middle-income students over the period.

The study cites a 1989 survey of seniors at 25 selective schools that found that 18 percent came from middle-income families, down from 27 percent in 1982.

The study downplays spiraling tuition costs as a factor in the "middle-income melt" higher education has been experiencing, but acknowledges that upper-income students are disproportionately represented in the selective schools. It also says those schools have been unable to convince middle-income students that they can afford their costs.

Morton O. Schapiro, professor of economics at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and co-author of the report, notes that administrators at these highly selective institutions have long worried that rising tuition costs have placed burdens on middle-income students wanting to attend their schools. Low-income students have a good chance of getting need-based aid to match tuition hikes, the study notes, while upper-income students often can turn to their parents for financial help.

"As tuitions rise faster than other economic indicators, students from middle-income backgrounds may be forced to switch to less costly educael10ltional alternatives," the study says.

The study relied on consortium information and student-reported data from the American Freshman Survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles for 1978 to 1989.

Its primary goal was to determine if certain students had been priced out of some higher-education markets. The study also looked at how cost affects college choice, the net cost for various income groups attending selective institutions, and the perceptions of middle-income families and students about costs and financial-aid at such schools.

The ucla data show that all4postsecondary sectors except four-year public universities have experienced a decline in the number of middle-income students enrolled. In 1978, families defined as "middle-income'' earned between $20,000 and $29,999, while in 1989, they earned between $40,000 and $59,999, according to the study.

During the period, the percentage of college students from middle-income families dropped 1.5 points, while the percentage of less-affluent students fell 2 points and that of more affluent ones rose 3 points.

The figure for the middle-income group mirrors a drop of 1.7 percent nationwide in the number of middle-income families with household heads age 45-64, the source of the majority of college students, according to the study. The number of below-middle-income families grew by 8 percent during the period, while the number of above-middle-income families decreased by 6 percent.

In addition, the study argues, the changes over the period at selective schools --a 4-point drop for middle-income students, no change for less-affluent and a 3-point boost for more affluent ones--did not differ dramatically from the overall figures.

Moreover, public universities, which generally are much less expensive than the selective schools and often are regarded as offering a comparable education, logged a 3 percent decline in middle-income students, the study says.

"If middle-income melt means that cofhe institutions are pricing themselves out of the market, the changes in the income distribution at cofhe schools should be more dramatic than at less costly alternatives, such as public universities," the study notes.

It appears middle-income students are opting for public, four-year colleges instead of public universities or the selective schools, the study says. These colleges' share of middle-income students remained constant at 27 percent, according to the study.

While the study asserts that middle-income students--regardless of whether they receive financial aid--do not appear to be deterred by the cost of the selective schools, such schools do lose more middle-income students than upper-income students, at each stage of the admissions process.

Among the most qualified students from middle-income families, the study says, a disproportionate number choose not to apply to a cofhe institution, or are not admitted, or are admitted but choose not to enroll.

Middle-income students generally restrict their applications to less-expensive public schools, the study says. While middle-income families must commit a greater percentage of their income than more affluent families to send a child to a selective school, the former may underestimate the amount of financial aid available to them, the study says.

Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said the report lacked a large and diverse sample of students.

"We think we're going to need more data and more definitive data before anyone can say specifically what is happening."

Copies of the study are available from the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, 238 Main St., Suite 307, Cambridge, Mass., 02142; telephone (617) 253-5030.

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