your connection to The Boston Globe

College freshmen wealthier, study says

US college freshmen are wealthier than at any point in the past 35 years, and the income gap is widening between their families and the rest of the nation, a study shows.

This academic year's entering class came from families with income 60 percent greater than the national median, as tuition increases shut out lower-income students, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a report yesterday. The gap was 46 percent in 1971, according to the study of more than 8 million students compiled over 40 years.

The findings, based on the biggest and longest-running survey of college students, may buttress criticism from members of Congress over the increasing cost of a college education. Tuition and fees have risen 35 percent so far this decade at public four-year institutions and 11 percent at their private counterparts, the researchers said, citing College Board figures.

"Students from wealthier families can endure greater fluctuations in 'sticker price' than poorer students," Jose Luis Santos, a UCLA professor and co author of the report, said in a statement. "As a result, more students entering college come from homes that are increasingly wealthier than the national median income."

While federal aid has helped broaden access to higher education since the 1970s, state cuts in appropriations for public universities and colleges have helped lead to tuition increases that affect lower-income students most, the researchers said.

The federal government also has turned more to loans in its offerings of assistance, according to the report, "American Freshmen: Forty-Year Trends 1966-2006."

"The study highlights the growing divide in our society and strongly affirms the need for both the federal government and states to re invigorate their investment in need-based student financial aid," Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said in an e-mail.

The report also shows the need "for states in particular to provide increased operating support to their higher education institutions in order to keep tuition costs down," Hurley said.

President Bush and members of Congress are proposing increases in grants and loan aid to students while calling on colleges and universities to keep down tuition increases.

A growing number of private colleges have raised their spending on financial aid. Elite universities including the Ivy League's Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania have replaced loans with grants in their aid packages for students from lower-income families.

Last month, Davidson College followed the Ivies' lead. The shift will cost the school, located near Charlotte, N.C., almost $2 million in the first year.

Universities now dedicate 68 percent of their own budgeted aid for need-based rather than merit-based aid, up from 60 percent in 2001, said Tony Pals of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

"Enhancing access for low-income students is a challenge that faces every one of America's 3,500 college presidents," Pals said by e-mail.

The report was compiled by the Higher Education Research Institute, part of UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.