Carleton is also committed to meeting 100% of the demonstrated financial need of anybody who does get in and attends. To my knowledge (I'm not on financial aid), we do a reasonably good job at this. But we're not perfect. A big kink in the system is the work/study program. A fair amount of the financial aid we give to students is in this form. All well and good, except that we don't have enough hours to go around. So we're caught in a situation where people are told that their aid will come via working for the college, but the college doesn't have a job for them. Which, itself, is a euphemism for "you're not getting the money." This may not have the terminal impact that non-need-blind admissions does, but it makes up for that by being plain cruel. Bait-and-switch is a bad policy for a financial aid office.
However, Carleton is not all that bad. We're facing a budget crunch (our endowment took a big hit when the tech bubble burst), and the college, to its credit, has maintained an economically diverse body of students that for the most part have been able to pay for college without too much unnecessary pain or heartache. Part of the reason we are able to afford the programs we do have is because need-based financial aid is the only type of financial aid we give out. Carleton has no academic or merit based scholarship. The one exception is the National Merit Scholarship (given to high performers on the PSATs). The National Merit Foundation gives $1,000 to its recipients, and Carleton matches. That gives $2,000 towards our $40,000+ tuition, which, while appreciated, is not much of a dent. Aside from that, all of our scholarship money is need-based. As it should be, for an elite institution like Carleton (here are some stats on our economic makeup).
Unfortunately, other colleges are not necessarily replicating this commitment. A goodly portion of philanthropic and scholarship money is going to relatively affluent students--and not the one's who need it most:
In 2003, about 100 research extensive universities spent $257 million in financial aid for students from families earning over $100,000 a year, almost as much as that spent on students from families earning $20,000-40,000, and more than that spent on students from families earning less than $20,000.
And the trendline is moving in the wrong direction:
Between 1995 and 2003, flagship and other research-extensive public universities actually decreased grant aid by 13 percent for students from families with an annual income of $20,000 or less, while they increased aid to students from families who make more than $100,000 by 406 percent. In 2003, these institutions spent a combined $257 million to subsidize the tuition of students from families with annual incomes over $100,000 – a staggering increase from the $50 million they spent in 1995. At the same time, poor students were disproportionately bearing the brunt of increased college tuition and fees.
The links are via Ann Bartow, who notes that there is a fast and easy way to get colleges to increase their commitment to assisting lower-income students: make it part of the rankings. If the all-powerful US News developed metrics measuring economic diversity, or availability of need-based scholarships, you can bet your bottom dollar that colleges would respond. Economic diversity, I might add, is something that should be considered important when saying what the "best" university is (it's certainly more relevant than some of the other considerations US News uses in putting together its list).