What Students Really Pay to Go to College

April 08, 2012

Click and drag the bars to explore the relationship between family income, price, and gift aid for Elmhurst College's freshman class. This interactive graphic allows you to answer questions like:

What do students from families making $25,000 or less pay?
What do students from families making $200,000 or more pay?
Which students pay $15,000 or less?
Which students with families making $100,000 or more pay $20,000 or less?

608 of 608 students selected.

Family Income
Gift Aid

Students in the selected range (20 highest incomes)


NOTE: All data are from Elmhurst College for the freshmen enrolled in 2011-12. Family income is reported from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and is not available for students who did not file the form. These students appear in the ‘Price’ and ‘Gift Aid’ charts, but not the ‘Family Income’ one. Most of Elmhurst's freshmen are dependent students, meaning their parents' incomes are considered when calculating need-based aid. Gift aid includes money from all sources that a student does not need to repay. Elmhurst uses two cost-of-attendance figures, one for on-campus students and the other for commuters. Price was determined by subtracting total grants from each student's cost. All numbers have been rounded to the nearest whole dollar.

Paying for college is often compared to buying a plane ticket. In a classroom, as in coach, there's a good chance you're surrounded by people who paid a different price than you did. With this variation in mind, colleges have long argued that their sticker prices are not a good measure of affordability. And recently, the federal government has taken their point to heart, focusing more attention on net price.

College Navigator, the government's consumer-information Web site, displays self-reported information on each college's overall net price as well as its net price for students in different family-income groups. This certainly highlights the fact that sticker price isn't the final word. But the information is still limited: The averages consider only some of a college's students, and the site does not indicate how many students are in each group.

The Chronicle decided to explore the numbers that make up those averages by finding out what every member of one freshman class is paying this year. Elmhurst College, a church-affiliated institution in Illinois, provided data on what each of its 608 freshmen actually paid after gift aid from all sources was subtracted from their upfront price. (The college also enrolls transfer students, who are not included in this analysis.) The Chronicle converted this information into an interactive graphic, allowing our readers to explore how gift aid and price relate to a student's family income.

Elmhurst's approach to financial aid is similar to that of many other private colleges, says Gary Rold, the dean of admission. Like most of its peers, Elmhurst cannot afford to meet the financial need of all of its students and uses aid to encourage top applicants to enroll. This means the gift aid students receive may be related to their financial situation, how badly the college wants them, or both. Many students pay quite a bit less than the full cost, which, including room, board, and other expenses, comes to $42,000 for resident students and $36,000 for commuters this year.

At Elmhurst, Mr. Rold says, every applicant is automatically considered for non-need-based aid, which comes in two main forms. The first is merit aid, which typically goes to students with higher-weighted GPA's and test scores than the college's average. Generally, the stronger an applicant's credentials, the larger the scholarship. Elmhurst offered its largest scholarship, $21,000, to 71 prospective 2011 freshmen, and 32 of them enrolled.

Elmhurst also uses enrichment awards to attract students from underrepresented groups. At the college, this includes not only ethnic minorities, but also students who practice religions other than Christianity; international students; and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (Elmhurst was the first in the country to ask students about their sexual orientation as part of the application process). Students in those groups are offered a scholarship equal to one-third of tuition, or, if they are already getting a lot of merit aid, an additional $2,000. The college offers a scholarship structured the same way to students from the United Church of Christ, the denomination with which it is affiliated. And Elmhurst gives money to students who show talent in music, theater, or art—or who are legacies. Although scholarships are awarded without regard to students' finances, 75 percent of the money ends up meeting student need, Mr. Rold says.

Students who file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid are also considered for need-based aid. The form is used to determine students' expected family contribution from details about their family income and assets, among other factors. Elmhurst students who qualify receive grants from the federal government and from the state of Illinois. The college also offers its own need-based aid, which is distributed to students based on a matrix designed by a consultant.

Take all the aid a particular student gets—need-based grants from the state and federal governments, say, and a merit scholarship for top grades and test scores—subtract it from the cost, and you get the price of that student's ticket to Elmhurst.

Of course, few passengers need to borrow money to fly away for the weekend. But at Elmhurst, many students take out loans to cover part of their remaining price.

About 70 percent of the freshmen borrowed, and their average debt for that first year came to $4,155.