Only a few hundred dollars separate the costs of the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University, but the price paid by their poorest students sets the two schools worlds apart.

U.Va.’s average total in-state cost — all expenses including tuition and fees, room and board, and books — was $23,986 for the 2011-12 academic year. Yet first-year students whose family incomes were below $30,000 paid a net average price of only $4,405.

VCU freshmen in the same income bracket paid more than three times that amount. Their net price of $13,672 was more than half of VCU’s average cost of attendance of $23,774 for that year.

The comparisons are from an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data for a four-year period by The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report and the Education Writers Association.

The project on college affordability found a troubling shift nationally in how financial aid is awarded: Schools are devoting increasing levels of aid to lure more affluent students at the expense of their lower-income classmates.

But the data also underscore the disparity of resources for financial aid among Virginia schools, both public and private.

Among public schools, the average net price — the total annual cost minus grants and scholarships — was the lowest at the College of William and Mary for the poorest students, who paid an average of $3,528 of the $24,974 in total in-state attendance costs.

The net price was $5,137 at Virginia Military Institute for the lowest-income students. It was $9,727 at James Madison University, $10,812 at Virginia State, $11,775 at Virginia Tech, $12,120 at George Mason University and $14,370 at Christopher Newport University.

Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said the agency has not observed a shift of aid to wealthier students. Unlike some other states, he said, Virginia has continued to support need-based aid as a priority.

“Still, it is an unfortunate reality that financial aid overall has not kept pace with increased need — at all income levels,” he said. That’s due in part to higher costs but also to the increasing number of students with financial need.

But the amount of institutional aid each school can award from its own resources varies dramatically. VCU, with 23,656 undergraduates, this year awarded about $9.5 million in institutional grant funds.

U.Va., with 16,086 undergraduates, gave out more than $40 million. About $23 million went to out-of-state students, who account for about a third of undergraduates.

Luke D. Schultheis, VCU vice provost for strategic enrollment management, said the total awarded through the office of financial aid and scholarships includes aid based on merit and need. In today’s economy, he added, middle-income students also qualify for need-based aid.

U.Va. has seen the number of undergraduates qualifying for need-based aid increase significantly over the decade, spokesman McGregor McCance said. About 33 percent have financial need this year, up from about 24 percent in 2005.

At the private University of Richmond, with a sticker price in 2011-12 of $54,460, the net price was $9,098 for students with family incomes under $30,000.

Washington and Lee University, with a slightly higher sticker price, also had a higher net price for the low-income students.

The analysis found that W&L nearly quadrupled its net price for the poorest students from 2008-09 to 2011-12, while lowering it for those in the higher income groups.

But W&L said the figures are misleading. “Any conclusion that we are shifting the burden to less-advantaged students is incorrect,” spokesman Brian Eckert said.

In 2008, the average net price for W&L students with family incomes below $30,000 was $3,829, compared to an average $21,027 for students in the $75,001-$110,000 bracket and $34,548 for students with family incomes above $110,000. Three years later, those students paid $13,741, $17,505 and $32,433, respectively.

Eckert said the inconsistency occurs because the Education Department data are based on the federal FAFSA aid application, which does not include as many financial factors or family assets as W&L considers in its evaluation.

“Our evaluation actually ensures that the truly lower-income families receive the greatest possible aid, so that families in every income bracket receive an aid package more in line with their actual financial resources,” Eckert said.

Beginning this fall, W&L will give free tuition to students from families with incomes below $75,000.

The new program will waive tuition for qualified new and current students, both in- and out-of-state residents, but will not cover their room and board and other fees.

The university announced the plan in October, several months after UR raised the income threshold from $40,000 to $60,000 on its similar program. While UR’s program covers all costs, including room and board, it is available only to first-year students from Virginia.

At Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, where the average sticker price was $44,698 in 2011-12, the net price was $19,233 for students in the below-$30,000 income bracket. It was $23,994 for students in the $75,001-$110,000 bracket.

David Lesesne, R-MC dean of admissions and financial aid, said the college uses separate processes to award aid based on merit and need.

“In our merit analysis, we do not consider a student’s need,” he said in an email. A merit evaluation is conducted for all applicants, who can also apply for need-based aid.

If the merit award does not meet demonstrated need, “we try to award additional aid based on need to help meet the student’s need.”

He said the average net cost at R-MC is actually less today than it was five years ago.

Last year, colleges and universities gave about $8.3 billion in merit aid to students whose family incomes were too high to qualify for federal Pell Grants, the College Board reports. Pell eligibility varies, but three-quarters of recipients come from families making $30,000 or less per year.

Dividing even a little money among several higher-income students means each will pay the rest of the tab, bringing in revenue lost when the same amount is awarded to a single low-income student. Plus, students enrolling from more affluent school districts generally bring with them higher test scores that improve colleges’ standings in national rankings.

The Dallas Morning News and Hechinger analysis of 3,700 schools nationally focused on how costs vary by income group between 2008-09 and 2011-12 for first-time, full-time freshmen who received financial aid, including loans, grants and work-study jobs.

The analysis was based on the average net price (total cost after subtracting aid that does not have to be repaid) with 2008 averages adjusted for inflation.

While lower-income students still paid far less than the sticker price, their net costs at private colleges and universities were found to have increased faster than the amount middle- and upper-income classmates pay.

At private universities, for example, students in the lowest income group saw an increase of about $1,700, the analysis found. Higher-income students paid more overall, but their costs rose more slowly — an inflation-adjusted average of about $850 for middle-income families and $1,200 for those in the top income group.

The data have limitations because they account for only first-year, full-time students who receive federal financial aid. For public schools, the reported net costs are only for freshmen who paid in-state tuition.

Among Virginia’s colleges and universities included in the analysis, the state’s two public ivies admitted the lowest percentage of in-state freshmen who received federal financial aid in 2011-12.

Of the W&M freshman class, about 21 percent were in-state students who received grants or loans; the number was 25 percent at U.Va.

That compares to 65 percent at VCU, 62 percent at Old Dominion, 60 percent at Radford, 59 percent at Longwood and 32 percent at James Madison universities.

Whether low percentages reflect the relative affluence of the student body at individual schools is not clear.

That is something the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia does not track, said Tod R. Massa, director of policy research and data warehousing for SCHEV.

SCHEV maintains data on students who have applied for aid “and most all of those have need,” he said.

But the agency does not keep information that would measure whether schools seek out more affluent students.

The percentage of students seeking federal financial aid “is certainly ‘a’ measure of relative affluence of the student body,” he said by email. “However, families that entered into 529 college savings plans when their children were babies may not be affluent, but may instead be good planners and good savers.”

U.Va. and W&M say they have need-blind admission policies, as does UR. That means the admissions team does not look at students’ ability to pay in determining whether they will be offered admission.

Under much criticism, U.Va. will alter a basic principle of its AccessUVA financial aid program this fall and for the first time include loans in aid packages of undergraduates with the most financial need. Previously, those students were able to graduate without debt.

Henry Broaddus, W&M’s dean of admission and associate provost for enrollment, said that under a new financial aid and tuition program, in-state freshmen whose families make less than $40,000 per year are not expected to take any loans.

W&M spokesman Brian Whitson discounted the significance of the low percentage of students receiving federal financial aid.

Federal aid is “one piece of the overall need-based aid” provided to in-state students, he said. “In relative terms, it is a small piece. In fact, less than 30 percent of the grants and loans awarded to undergraduates at W&M comes from federal sources.”

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