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Ending the Tuition Wars

A worrisome trend is apparent at many private colleges and universities. To keep or gain academic rankings as "the nation's best," they compete with each other to offer more and more aid to the top crop of student applicants - who usually don't need the money.

This bidding war, using "merit based" scholarships, often means less aid money for low-income students who aren't as academically qualified. A 1999 survey found only one-eighth of freshmen at private colleges had parents earning less than $40,000. This trend can hold back minorities from higher education and can undercut efforts to provide more diversity on campuses.

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The same trend can also be seen in federal and state tuition aid, usually in the form of tax breaks, that mainly helps wealthier families. Such government resources could be more targeted at the truly needy.

But last week, a group of 28 private colleges, from Cornell to Emory to Pomona, agreed on standards for measuring a family's ability to pay for college, hoping to restore public confidence in the financial-aid system and win over other institutions who admit students without regard to their ability to pay.

Such a national formula, it is expected, would have the effect of reducing the competition among higher-education institutions to vary the rules on aid that benefit the best students, no matter what the need.

This uniform system also offers parents better guidance on planning their assets to help pay for their children's college education.

Home equity, for instance, would be counted in the overall evaluation of a family's financial strength, but only at 2.4 times income minus mortgage debt. Divorced families will be given fair consideration, and the cost of living in expensive cities would be factored in. Those parents who use college savings plans will no longer be penalized for doing so. And those without a retirement program will be given extra help under the new formula.

A few of the best and most heavily endowed universities are likely not to buy into this system, so competition for straight-A students will continue.

But with the number of college-bound students expected to rise by 1.6 million by 2015 - and with many more minorities applying - the aid system does need some fixing. These 28 schools should be congratulated and supported for taking this stand.

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor