The students who shuffled into Seton Hall University for the first time this fall semester make up a freshman class distinctive for one simple reason: they will be the last students ever enrolled in the college who weren’t eligible for its two-thirds tuition discount.

Richard Perez-Pena reports in the New York Times that Seton Hall, a Catholic university 14 miles outside of Manhattan in South Orange, New Jersey will begin a financial aid program next year for anyone who graduates in the top ten percent of their high school class, and scores a 1200 or better on their reading and math SATs, with scores of at least 550 on both sections. As the Times puts it, the aid package gives students:

…two-thirds off the regular sticker price for tuition, a discount of some $21,000. For New Jersey residents, who constitute about 70 percent of Seton Hall’s undergraduates, that would make the cost equivalent to that of Rutgers University…for those from out of state, the private school would be much cheaper than the public one.

The reason for this change, as university president Gabriel Esteban tells it, is twofold: one, it eases the burden of college tuition on high performing students, a real concern no doubt exacerbated by the current shape of the economy. The second reason, which Esteban doesn’t conceal, is that it makes Seton Hall more attractive to those same high performing students, students of a “certain quality” the school is hungry to enroll.

If there’s a third reason, it might have to do with what the Times figured out, that an expensive private college is having trouble competing with its state’s public school system. And Seton Hall is an expensive college. Tuition this year stood at a hefty $31,440, with another $13,000 in room and board. And while its law and dental schools have some notoriety, it’s not particularly well known. At present its price tag and Catholic credentials means it likely appeals most to a certain established set of affluent students in the tri-state area. Do they need an added incentive to attend? I’m sure they’ll take it. Enrollment incentives have been tried all over the country: Sewanee College in Tennessee cut its total tuition bill by 10 percent, and several Ivy League schools have begun replacing student loans with student grants and handing them out to families with incomes as high as $100,000.

Another question is, are these incentives working? This is a country where most kids that go to college at all are relegated to community colleges and cheap state schools. Comparing incentives at universities with price tags upwards of $20,000 a year can be like comparing deals on luxury cars. The families that send their kids to Seton Hall can afford to send their kids almost anywhere. A two-thirds tuition discount will open the doors for more students, but not poor ones.

More likely the changes we see will come from colleges who will continue to invent methods of maneuvering for the prized A+ students that raise notoriety and prestige. That’s not a bad thing, but if you’re looking for programs that put more American kids in college, keep looking.

Justin Spees

Justin Spees is an intern at the Washington Monthly.