By Darren E. Weiss

On average, parents of children attending four-year colleges have been wealthier than most, but according to a recent study, that gap is widening.

The report, released last Monday by UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program, reveals that this year’s incoming freshman class came from families with incomes 60 percent higher than the national average. And according to the survey, the gap has risen steadily since 1971, when the figure was set at 46 percent.

The findings are based on data UCLA began collecting in 1966, and cover a range of over eight million students at more than 1,000 four-year colleges and universities nationwide.

The study may support congressional criticism over the increasing costs to obtain a higher education. In the past decade, four-year colleges and universities have significantly increased tuitions and fees to offset rising costs: 35 percent at public institutions and 11 percent at private four-years.

“This is having an effect on incoming students, particularly the poorest among us, because they are the most responsive to changes in price,” said Jose Luis Santos, co-author of the report and professor of education at UCLA. “[Increasing tuition] is having an effect on what incoming freshmen look like – they are increasingly coming from wealthier families,” he said.

Furthermore recent studies have shown that selective four-year colleges are enrolling fewer students who qualify for need-based financial aid. The UCLA report, called “American Freshmen: Forty Year Trends 1966-2006,” found that the federal government has recently doled out more loans, which must be repaid, than scholarship or grant money.

“The study affirms a growing divide that needs to be addressed,” said Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “It can be addressed by increased state and federal financial aid, specifically need-based rather than merit-based.”

While 72 percent of financial aid is need-based, he said, recent trends suggest there has been a growth in merit-based aid.

“One should not be at the expense of the other,” Hurley said.

According to Ron Glass, UC Santa Cruz professor of education, the Federal Pell Grant, the nation’s leading source of need-based financial aid, has lost much of its value.

“The purchasing power of the maximum Pell Grant fell from 84 percent of tuition costs in 1975-76 to 39 percent in 2002,” Glass said.

Almost one-half of African Americans and one-third of Latinos who attend colleges and universities graduate with “unmanageable” debt, said Glass. For low-income students, “going to college can be a big financial burden.”

President Bush and members of Congress are proposing solutions. They have called for increased loan and grant aid while pressuring colleges and universities to keep down tuition costs. Ivy League’s Harvard University, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania have provided grants and student employment instead of offering loans to students from low-income families.

Although students at four-year private institutions have always reported higher average incomes than students at four-year public universities, UCLA’s study suggests that that gap is closing, as well. From 1971 to 2006, the average parental income for students at private universities rose 15.7 percent to $83,500, while that of students at public universities rose 17.1 percent to $73,400. (Both figures are in inflation-adjusted dollars.)

But in addition to numbers and figures, the study observed the values and attitudes among students over the past 40 years. Notions of community leadership and helping others have become more important than ever before, the report found. In 1976 and again in 2006, students said the most important reason for going to college was “To learn about things that interest me,” followed by, “To get a better job.”