Who Can Afford Elite Private Colleges?

During the beginning of a recent board of directors Zoom call, one of my fellow board members said hello and that she enjoyed reading my recent blog article. I asked her if she was referring to the Ivy Plus Affordability article, and she replied yes.

We had a few minutes before the meeting started, and she asked me why I had not included in the article an analysis of other elite private colleges and universities like Amherst and Williams. I said I had only focused on the 12 Ivy Plus institutions because of the recent working paper. She suggested that I look at a few more.

With the “encouragement” to look at a few more private colleges and universities, I decided that I would pull my list from the U.S. News top 50 national universities rankings and the top 50 national liberal arts colleges rankings. I excluded public institutions, and I did not include any school whose undergraduate acceptance rate exceeded 50 percent.

There are 66 private colleges and universities on this curated list. When you add in the 12 Ivy Plus universities, that’s 78 private colleges and universities with admissions rates less than 50 percent. I have read that there are less than 100 with admissions rates less than 50 percent. When you add in the prestigious state flagship universities plus the service academies, that likely brings it to a number in the 90’s.  It’s also possible that I have missed one or two privates meeting this criterion and if so, will add them later.

In Table 1 below, I list the institutions, total and undergraduate enrollment, cost of attendance stats, as well as the percentage of undergraduate applicants admitted.

selective colleges and universities

selective colleges and universities, continued

Total enrollment ranges from a high of 59,144 at NYU to a low of 922 at Harvey Mudd College. The same two schools bookend undergraduate enrollment with a high of 29,401 and a low of 922.

Tuition and overall Cost of Attendance have a much smaller range than enrollment. Kenyon College tuition comprises the high at $66,490 and Hillsdale College holds the honor for low tuition at $30,902. Northwestern University’s cost of attendance represents the peak at $89,394 and Hillsdale College represents the low at $46,602. The mean and median costs of attendance are similar at $80,705 and $81,338 respectively. The Ivy Plus group’s cost of attendance mean was $83,601 and the group’s median was $83,612. There’s not much of a gap in pricing between the two groups. At this level of elite brands, it is possible that with a gap in the means of only 3.6 percent, the difference represents a “follow-the-leader” lag of a year’s tuition increase.

Admissions selectivity for this non-Ivy Plus group ranged from a mean of 20 percent to a median of 16 percent. This compares to the mean and median of 5 percent for the Ivy Plus group. Cal Tech’s low of 3 percent compared to Harvard’s low of 3 percent. However, the high of 7 percent for Cornell and Penn was vastly different than the high of 48 percent of applicants admitted by Whitman College. There were 13 out of the 66 institutions in this group that had single digit admit rates.

Table 2 provides a snapshot of undergraduate students and the percentage with no aid (full pay), with grants, with Pell grants, and with loans.

non-Ivy plus universities

non-Ivy plus universities continued

Competition for full-pay students is fierce in this environment. Brand helps and since all these colleges are ranked in a US News top ranking, it’s no surprise that there is a higher percentage of full pay than what most colleges experience. The mean and median for the group are similar at 32 percent and 33 percent. Wake Forest University and Bates College tie for the top spot for the high at 63 percent and Scripps College holds the low spot at 0 percent. The Ivy Plus group has a higher full pay percentage with a mean of 38 percent and a median of 42 percent.

The mean and median for the percentage of undergraduates with grants are close at 63 percent and 61 percent. Berea College occupies the high at 100 percent and Georgetown University holds the low at 37 percent. The Ivy Plus group posted a mean of 55 percent as well as a median of 55 percent. It’s reasonable to assume that their more selective statuses would allow them to offer lower grants as a percentage of tuition.

The mean and median for the percentage of undergraduates with Pell grants are close at 16 percent and 15 percent. Berea College holds the high at 84 percent and Hillsdale College at 0 percent. It should be noted that Hillsdale does not participate in the federal aid programs. These percentages are close to the Ivy Plus mean and median percentages which were 16 percent and 17 percent.

The mean and median for the percentage of undergraduates with loans are close at 25 percent and 24 percent. The high is Franklin & Marshall at 51 percent and the low is Hillsdale College at 0 percent. This is more than double the percentage of undergraduates with loans at the Ivy Plus institutions which had a mean of 10 percent and a median of 7 percent.

Part of the explanation for the difference in the percentage of students with federal loans is the difference in the percentage of students with no aid at Ivy Plus institutions which comprised a mean of 38 percent and a median of 42 percent compared to a mean of 32 percent and a median of 33 percent. The other explanation is likely due to the size of the Ivy Plus school endowments and their ability to guarantee no loans for students from families with incomes below a specific amount.

Table 3 below provides data regarding the percentage of grants, the total dollar value of those grants, and the average grant per student.

non-Ivy plus grants

non-Ivy plus grants, part two

The mean percentage of students receiving grants was 63 percent and the median was 61 percent. This is slightly higher than the Ivy Plus group with a mean and a median of 55 percent.  My assumption is that these differences can be explained through the difference in the percentage of full-pay students as well as a less competitive market for the highly selective Ivy Plus group.

Table 4 below outlines the number and percentage of Pell grant recipients at each school as well as the total dollars received, and the average Pell grant awarded to each student.

non-Ivy plus Pell grants

non-Ivy plus Pell grants

The mean and the median for this group is close at 16 percent and 15 percent respectively. This compares to the mean and the median for the Ivy Plus group which was 16 percent and 17 percent. The 66 colleges in this group ranged from a high of 84 percent at Berea College to a low of 0 percent at Hillsdale. If Hillsdale is removed because it does not participate in federal aid programs, the lowest percentage would be 9 percent at Lafayette College, Oberlin College, Tulane University, and Wake Forest University.

Table 5 below provides data on the percentage of students with federal loans, the number of students with loans, the total amount borrowed for each school, and the average loan per student.

non-Ivy plus loans

non-Ivy plus loans

The percentage of students borrowing averages 25 percent with a median of 24 percent. This compares to the mean of 10 percent and median of 7 percent at the Ivy Plus institutions. I attribute this to the higher percentage of full-pay students and the more generous financial aid policies at the Ivy Plus institutions thanks to their higher endowment balances.

The highest percentage of borrowers is 51 percent at Bryn Mawr College and the lowest is 0 percent at Hillsdale. The next lowest percentage of borrowers is 3 percent at Colby College. A friend of mine has a son attending one of these elite colleges. I asked if she thought the borrowing was as low as reported. Her reply was that some families may spend down savings accounts in the first year or all four years, lowering the debt. She also commented that taking out a second mortgage may be a strategy for some as the interest on the second mortgage may be deductible for the higher earning families. Also, if grandparents write a check to the college for their grandchild’s tuition, the amount is not applied against annual gift limitations. Obviously, these are not strategies available to lower income families.

There have been many fascinating observations for me during this exercise and the data in Table 6 below are part of those observations.

net price by income

non-Ivy plus loans

College Navigator provides an average net price per institution, but this is another instance when an average value is misleading. When I reviewed this data for the Ivy Plus group, it was obvious that their financial aid departments removed as much of a financial barrier as possible for the two lowest quintiles and even the third and fourth quintiles. There are only a handful of institutions in this group that emulate a similar strategy to the Ivy Plus group (ignore Hinsdale’s zero’s since they do not participate in the federal aid programs). The income quintiles increase, but there’s less of a cliff for the first two quintiles which represent family incomes from $0 to $48,000.

The Ivy Plus group median declined from $3,391 to $2,198 for the first two quintiles. The non-Ivy Plus group median declined from $10,197 to $9,536. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone in those quintiles can afford to attend colleges charging those reduced fees. The differences are even greater when you review the institutions charging more than the median price. The high values for the Ivy Plus group were $6,184 and $5,017. Both of those are lower than the median for the non-Ivy Plus group. The highs for these two lowest quintiles were $25,761 and $31,625 for this group which were at Pitzer College and Harvey Mudd College respectively.

I reached out to several friends seeking an explanation for the variances in the net price income ranges, specifically the differences between the Ivy Plus colleges and the non-Ivy Plus institutions. All of them have experience working in traditional higher ed enrollment management roles.

One of them stated that very few of the colleges in this list have endowments as large as the Ivy Plus schools. Without a large endowment or donations to cover the lowest income quintiles, he/she hypothesized that the higher net price was because the school could not afford that steep of a discount or did not want to increase its discount rate if the net price was $2-3k like the Ivy Plus schools.

I’m sure that there’s a bigger story regarding the strategy for setting the net price by income level. If I connect with someone who can provide me with more specifics, I’ll add those changes to this article.

At the same time, I am not persuaded that there is much wiggle room for institutions to eliminate legacy admissions and admit students with the same academic credentials who are poorer. Could the Ivy Plus institutions admit a few more lower income students? Maybe. Could the 66 elite private colleges and universities listed here do the same? Maybe the ones with the highest endowments and highest percentage of full pay students can, but I doubt that more than 15 percent can.

As Shamus Khan noted in his July 7th opinion piece in the New York Times, if legacy preferences are eliminated, those students are likely to be replaced by other privileged students. Based on the published net prices by income range, I think he’s correct.

I wrote before that I thought that affirmative action policies provided many benefits to students of color. I also wrote that when I applied to college, I was opposed to legacy admissions. However, if an elite college or university can demonstrate that there will be no change in the income profiles of students admitted if legacy preferences are eliminated, then I think they should not be banned from doing so.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence