For Arianna Alexander, making a decision about college wasn't easy: she had more than two dozen to choose from. The recent Kenwood Academy graduate was accepted to 26 schools, six of them Ivy League, and was awarded more than $3 million in scholarships.
Kenwood Academy, a magnet high school in Chicago, is known for its success at getting students into college, and making sure they can pay for it. The 371 students in this year's class earned $39.6 million in scholarship money. Three, including Alexander, are part of the Gates Scholars program, which covers unmet needs for low-income minority students.
For Alexander, the money means she will be able to attend her first choice school, the University of Pennsylvania, to study business.
"I feel like it means I can afford college and I don't have to worry about it. I feel like that's an issue for a lot of people my age," she told Chicago's ABC affiliate.
The nation's top colleges seem to be increasingly sensitive to this issue, as many now offer free tuition to students whose family income falls below a certain threshold. Earlier this year, Stanford University announced that families whose income and assets totaled under $125,000 would not have to pay tuition. Many of its peers, such as Harvard and MIT, have similar policies.
But while financial aid offers grow increasingly generous, the cost of college is increasing as well, especially at elite universities. The average cost of an in-state public education in 2014-15 was $9,139, and the average cost of a private school was $31,231. More than 50 highly-ranked schools, such as the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, cost upwards of $60,000 a year.
For many high-achieving students, an elite education is still unaffordable. Ronald Nelson, a recent high school grad who made headlines for his admittance to all eight Ivy League schools, will attend the University of Alabama in the fall for financial reasons.
"With people being in debt for years and years, it wasn't a burden that Ronald wanted to take on and it wasn't a burden that we wanted to deal with for a number of years after undergraduate," Nelson's father, Ronald Sr., told Business Insider . "We can put that money away and spend it on his medical school, or any other graduate school."
Despite increasingly generous financial-aid policies, the socioeconomic makeup of the Ivies and other prestigious schools still heavily favors wealthier students. A study done by The New York Times showed that at the nation’s most selective 193 colleges and universities, affluent students (from the richest socioeconomic quarter of the population) outnumber economically disadvantaged students (from the bottom quarter) by 14 to 1.
William Deresiewicz, a former Yale University professor, believes that the socioeconomic imbalance is due not to high tuition costs, but to the "ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game." This admissions game, he says, is tailored to upper middle-class families who can afford resume-boosters like music lessons, SAT prep courses, and service trips to Africa.
"The problem isn’t that there aren’t more qualified lower-income kids from which to choose," Deresiewicz writes in an article titled "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League."
"Elite private colleges will never allow their students’ economic profile to mirror that of society as a whole," he writes. "They can’t afford to – they need a critical mass of full payers and they need to tend to their donor base – and it’s not even clear that they’d want to."