According to the U.S. Department of Education, the real average cost of one year of college has doubled since 1985. Many worry that climbing prices lock low-income students out of elite schools, but a new study from Jason D. Delisle and Preston Cooper of the American Enterprise Institute finds the opposite. Over the last two decades, as the cost of the most selective colleges has indeed gone up, so has enrollment of students from the lowest income bracket.

Delisle and Cooper attribute their findings to a rarely-used data source: the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative dataset from the U.S. Department of Education. Because NPSAS directly measures family income and contains a much broader sample of students, it provides a more comprehensive view into enrollment trends than most studies allow. The authors divide students into income quartiles and define the bottom quartile as “low income” and the top as “high income.” “Selective institutions” are the 200 U.S. colleges with the lowest acceptance rates and highest SAT/ACT scores over a fifteen-year period (2001–15).

Counter to the traditional narrative, the share of low-income students at selective colleges has actually increased since 1999. That year, only 8.1 percent of students at these institutions were in the lowest income quartile; by 2015, that number had nearly doubled to 15.1 percent. Delisle and Cooper note that colleges likely did not lower admissions standards to boost low-income enrollment, as average test scores among these students did not decline over the same period. Meanwhile, the share of high-income students also increased slightly, from 52.1 percent to 54.2 percent.

If selective colleges enroll more students from both extremes of the income spectrum, something had to give. Indeed, enrollment from the two middle quartiles dropped nine points, from 39.7 percent in 1999 to 30.7 percent in 2015.

A brief look at net tuition also challenges the conventional wisdom. Yes, college costs have gone up, but low-income students paid only $1,358 more for tuition in 2015 than in 1999 (adjusted for inflation). This 42 percent increase is less than the 64 percent price increase students from the highest income bracket faced. Their tuition jumped $8,162. Middle-income students from the third income quartile experienced a $3,433, or a 48 percent, rise.

Why do the findings in this report differ from the bleaker conclusions reached in other studies? Delisle and Cooper present a few reasons. First, their use of the NPSAS allows them to examine family income directly. Most other studies use proxies for income, such as whether a student received Pell funding. The “Pell proxy” allows for data collection at the institutional level, but it does not accurately represent income distribution on campus. Not every low-income student receives Pell money, and some middle-income students do receive the grant. The authors also include independent and part-time students in their income quartiles. Since 40 percent of today’s college students are “non-traditional learners,” they should absolutely be part of any conversation about enrollment trends.

Unfortunately, the inclusion of non-traditional learners does not extend to the authors’ analysis of tuition increases, where they focus only on full-time students. Selective schools may work hard to keep costs low for financially strapped pupils, but many scholarships are only available to full-time college-goers. They also do not discuss the rising cost of living, a barrier low-income students face regardless of tuition assistance. In fact, the College Board estimates room-and-board expenses can sometimes match or exceed annual tuition.

Overall, it is encouraging to see that low-income learners are not being priced out of top tier colleges to the extent many fear. Though Delisle and Cooper commend institutions for keeping these students from “bearing the full brunt of increasing tuition,” it is concerning that their success has come at the expense of middle-income pupils. We should also evaluate the total cost of heading to college, not just tuition itself, before applauding too loudly. With over half the seats at selective schools still filled from the top income quartile, there is still more work to be done to make high quality education affordable for students from all backgrounds.

SOURCE: Jason D. Delisle and Preston Cooper, “Low-Income Students at Selective Colleges: Disappearing or Holding Steady?” American Enterprise Institute (July 2018).

Jessie McBirney is a development and research associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A California native, she moved to Washington, DC, after graduating from Biola University with a bachelor's degree in political science. Most recently she worked at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, doing government advocacy on issues such as financial aid and college accreditation.