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America’s colleges and universities are quietly shifting the burden of their big tuition increases onto low-income students, while many higher-income families are seeing their college costs rise more slowly or even fall, an analysis of federal data shows.

It’s a trend financial-aid experts and some university administrators worry will further widen the gap between the nation’s rich and poor as college degrees — especially four-year ones — drift beyond the economic reach of growing numbers of students.

“We’re just exacerbating the income inequalities and educational achievement gaps,” said Deborah Santiago, co-founder and vice president of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit group that advocates for Latino and other students.

That shift also runs contrary to an Obama administration push to make a college degree more affordable for low-income students.

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In fact, lower-income and working-class students at private colleges and universities have seen the amount they pay, after grants and scholarships, increase faster than the amount their middle- and upper-income classmates pay.

According to the analysis of Department of Education data, that was true at some Washington private universities — including Seattle Pacific University and the University of Puget Sound — which raised prices more on low-income students than on high-income students.

But the reverse is true at the state’s public universities. While tuition climbed sharply over the past four years for both low- and high-income students, the state’s public schools raised tuition the most on students from high-income families, passing on smaller increases to low-income students.

Nationally, the net price — the total annual cost of tuition, fees, room, board, books and other expenses, minus federal, state and institutional scholarships and grants — rose for all students by an average of $1,100 at public and $1,500 at private universities between the 2008-09 and 2011-12 academic years, the most recent period for which the figures are available.

At private universities, students in the lowest income group saw the biggest dollar increase over that period: about $1,700, after adjusting for inflation, according to the analysis by The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report and the Education Writers Association. Higher-income students paid more overall, but their costs rose more slowly — an inflation-adjusted average of about $850 for middle-income families and $1,200 for those in the top income group.

At private research universities, including many of the nation’s most elite, the net price rose by an average of $2,700 for the poorest families — those with incomes under $30,000 a year — compared to $1,400 for their higher-income classmates.

Those averages are also adjusted for inflation, and the sample is limited to students who received any federal aid. (To see how any university or college in the country has raised its net price, based on income, use the Tuition Tracker tool at

Experts and advocates concede that, as tuition spirals ever higher, even higher-income families need help paying for it, making the situation far more complex.

Wealthier students still pay more for college educations, on average, mainly because they don’t qualify for need-based financial help.

But they do get billions of dollars in discounts and other financial breaks, including merit aid, from colleges. Colleges do this to maintain enrollment numbers, keep revenue rolling in and raise standings in annual rankings.

Critics say the help should go instead to their lower-income classmates.

“Schools are talking out of both sides of their mouths,” said one critic, Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit think tank. “They say that they support access, but in general they’re giving more and more of their aid to higher-income students.”

Financial-aid officials say higher-income families have learned to work this system, pitting institutions against one another to negotiate for even more discounts while also capturing a lopsided share of outside scholarships.

At Seattle Pacific University officials acknowledge that net costs have gone up faster for low-income families — from about $13,000 in 2008-09 to $20,400 in 2011-12 for the lowest-income families

Students whose families earned more than $110,000 saw their tuition jump far less, by about $1,000, during the same time period. Those students paid about $30,500 in 2011-12.

Like other schools, SPU offers low-income students financial aid as part of an admission offer. And it offers merit aid to students with high grades and test scores. But the school can’t control which students among those it accepts actually enroll there, said Jordan Grant, assistant vice president for undergraduate enrollment management, and the composition of the class can skew the numbers.

Grant says the school closely monitors other indicators, such as the average debt load of its graduating students, to make sure it’s not charging more than its students can afford.

The analysis also shows that the University of Puget Sound has increased its net price faster for students from low-income families than for those from high incomes. But UPS officials say that if the study’s four-year time frame shifts a year to include data for 2012-13, the net price rose more for high-income families,

although only slightly, by about $50.

The survey also excludes grants and scholarships from private sources, and state and federal work study money, said UPS media relations manager Shirley Skeel. Work-study students at UPS receive an average of $3,000 per year.

The tuition shift to low-income students is occurring even as colleges and universities contend they’re less and less able to help low-income families financially. Higher-income families also disproportionately benefit from tuition tax breaks and an outdated formula for the taxpayer-supported federal work-study program.

Colleges and universities last year gave about $8.3 billion in so-called merit aid to students whose family incomes were too high for them to qualify for government-issued Pell Grants, the College Board reports.

Pell eligibility varies based on such things as whether students are dependent on their parents and go to school full- or part-time, and the cost of their tuition. Three-quarters of Pell recipients come from families that make $30,000 or less per year.

That means public and private colleges and universities are spending more of their financial-aid budgets trying to lure higher-income students, whose families earn much more than $30,000 a year, than on meeting the financial needs of low-income ones, according to a 2011 report by the DOE.

The colleges do this because dividing even a little money among several higher-income students means each of their families will pay the rest — filling more seats at a time when enrollments are declining, and keeping much-needed revenue coming in — while giving that same amount to a single low-income student would result in a loss to the bottom line.

Better-off students tend to come from better-funded high schools and also typically bring the kinds of entrance-test scores and grade-point averages that make colleges look better in annual rankings than do students from poorer districts.

Lower-income students have been particularly vulnerable to tuition increases at many taxpayer-supported public universities, too, which have followed state budget cuts for higher education, the federal figures show.

But that’s not the case in Washington, where higher-income students in all the state’s four-year public schools shouldered greater increases than poorer students.

For example, wealthier students at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus paid an extra $4,378, while the poorest paid an additional $2,816.

Nor are all private universities heading in the same direction. Several private institutions are raising money to endow financial aid for lower-income students. For example, UPS has a major fundraising campaign under way that aims to raise $44 million in an endowment for financial aid.

Seattle Times higher-education reporter Katherine Long contributed to this report.

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