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What does ‘Middle Class’ Mean to Colleges?

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When the media talks about money and the economy, the term “middle class” is one that’s frequently mentioned. We think of middle-class people as average, ordinary people, so it’s natural for us to evaluate financial situations, policies, and predicaments in terms of how they affect the middle class.


College costs and financial aid are no exception. When we consider whether a college education is affordable, we’re generally thinking about whether it’s affordable for an average, ordinary, middle-class family.


But what is the middle class? You may feel like a middle-class person, but will colleges agree that you fall into that category? And how might your socioeconomic class affect your college admissions and financial aid prospects? Read on to find out.


Defining the Middle Class

Most people think of someone who’s middle class as someone who is neither rich nor poor. A middle-class family might have a relatively comfortable lifestyle in which they can afford the necessities as well as a treat now and then. However, they could still be financially limited in important ways, and unable to afford every luxury.


Technically defining the middle class gets a little more specific — and complicated. The well-regarded Pew Research Institute defines a middle-class family income for a family of four as roughly $46,960 to $140,900 per year, so you can use that figure as a starting point when considering whether your family is truly middle class. 


Your family’s assets and liabilities — their cash reserves, investments, and property, balanced against their debts — also matter, and some experts prefer to define socioeconomic class based on this measure of wealth. According to one evaluation, middle-class families are those who have less than $400,100 in assets, but more than $0, meaning their assets outweigh their debts.


Do those statistics surprise you? If so, you’re not alone. The fact is that more people consider themselves to be middle class than actually are middle class (according to most definitions). Particularly if you’re young and don’t know much about how the adults in your family handle their finances (or what the full extent of their assets and debts might be), it’s easy to assume that you’re middle class, even when your income and lifestyle are actually outside of that category.


Of course, income and assets don’t always map directly to lifestyle in the real world. Some geographic areas have far higher costs of living than others. Other factors, such as the size of your family and whether you have unusually high necessary expenses (such as medical costs), also influence what you can actually afford in practice.


However, these financial guidelines are a good place to start when you’re trying to better understand what constitutes a middle-class family. They’re also useful in helping you figure out what colleges mean when they tout financial aid options for the “average” middle-class family.


How can my socioeconomic class affect my admissions decision?

In most cases, the answer to this question is simple: it doesn’t. No college will explicitly use socioeconomic class as a basis for admissions decisions. It doesn’t make sense for them to do so — it wouldn’t result in the highest-quality or best-matched student body; it would inhibit diversity on campus, and it would definitely result in bad press. It’s against the stated policies of most colleges, and in some cases, it’s against the law.


However, there are two possible exceptions. One is the case of need-aware admissions policies. The other is when your financial status has significantly affected your high school activities and opportunities in a way that colleges need to take into account. 


Colleges with need-aware admissions policies may make admissions decisions based in part upon your ability to pay. This is typically because they have limited funding available for financial aid and can’t afford to cover the needs of many students, so they’re dependent upon having a certain number of students pay their own way. You’re more likely to encounter need-aware policies if you’re an international applicant or if you’re applying as a transfer student.


The opposite of need-aware admissions is known as a need-blind admissions policy, in which admission is unconnected to your ability to pay. For more information on what this difference can mean for you, check out the CollegeVine blog post Financial Aid: Need-Blind vs. Need-Aware Admissions.


Another way that your socioeconomic status may affect your admissions prospects is if admissions officers realize that financial factors have limited your access to advantages and opportunities in high school. They might become aware of this fact because they’re familiar with the demographics of your town or school, from a teacher or counselor recommendation, or from an essay in which you directly address the subject — which might be a good idea.


If admissions officers know that your financial situation restricted your options in high school, they’ll be able to interpret the rest of your application in that light, and they may be even more impressed if you’ve nevertheless been able to put together a competitive profile. Colleges are interested not only in what you’ve accomplished, objectively speaking, but also in how you’ve dealt with the particular opportunities and obstacles that you’ve personally encountered.


This isn’t to say that colleges have lower admissions standards for students from less affluent backgrounds. All it means is that colleges understand that not everyone has access to the same set of opportunities in high school, and that this fact will affect your eventual applicant profile. They’re not going to use your socioeconomic status against you, but they may take it into account when trying to better understand your background and what you made of it.


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How can my socioeconomic class affect my financial aid?

As college costs have risen, increasing attention has been paid to the difficulties ordinary families have in paying for college. Of course, low-income families are hit hardest by cost increases, but given how expensive some colleges have become, middle-class families are also feeling the pain.


Some colleges have responded by instituting financial aid initiatives that specifically target middle-class families. These colleges recognize that the neediest students and their families aren’t the only ones who require financial help in order to make attending college a viable option.


For an example of how this can work, let’s look at Harvard University’s financial aid policies for undergraduates. Harvard’s institutional financial aid is awarded based entirely on need, and the university guarantees to meet 100% of the demonstrated financial need of all students, based on the data they submit through the FAFSA and CSS Profile.


At Harvard, the percentage of income that families of accepted students are expected to contribute depends upon which income bracket they fall into. Families with an annual income under $65,000 per year (with typical assets) generally have no expected family contribution, meaning that most of their college costs will be covered by financial aid.


Families with incomes between $65,000 and $150,000 per year are generally expected to contribute between zero and 10% of their annual income each year. This category roughly matches most sources’ definition of “middle class.” Over that income level, the percentage of income parents are expected to contribute rises, especially if substantial assets are involved.


As you can see, Harvard’s financial aid policy specifically benefits middle-class families more than families with higher incomes by expecting middle-class families to contribute not only a smaller amount, but a smaller proportion of their income. The cost of attending Harvard currently hovers around $70,000 per year, so this might make a substantial difference in your ability to attend.


If one or more of the colleges on your list claims to offer improved financial aid for middle-class students in particular, it’s useful to know whether you fit into that category. Again, high school students aren’t always aware of the details of their families’ financial arrangements, so you may not really know the answer to this question yet. It’s worth your time to look into it.


Learning More About Financial Aid

When you’re applying for financial aid, you’ll need to proactively manage your expectations. For merit-based scholarships, this means being knowledgeable about factors like how competitive a particular scholarship is and whether your profile is a good match for that program.


For need-based financial aid, managing your expectations means understanding what funding options you already have, what financial help you need to make college affordable, and how your resources and needs compare to those of others. Before you decide which colleges are worth applying to, it’s wise to research their financial aid policies, evaluate your own situation, and estimate how much financial aid you’re likely to receive.


Seeing where you fall on the socioeconomic spectrum can do more than help you develop reasonable expectations about how much financial aid you’re likely to receive. It can also help you grow into a better understanding of where you come from and what position you occupy in the world — a valuable skill to foster as you prepare to encounter the great diversity that your college community will offer.


Looking for more information about what to expect from the financial aid application process? CollegeVine is here to help.


Check out these posts from the CollegeVine blog about applying for financial aid, evaluating financial aid options, and finding a way to make college affordable for you:



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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.