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At small liberal arts schools vying for the attention of top students, announcements of sweeping financial aid reform at Harvard, Penn and other schools mean trouble.

Like most colleges and universities, academically-renowned liberal arts schools do not have billion-dollar budgets. Such funds allow for Harvard's reduction in tuition for families earning under $180,000 and Penn's new loan-free aid packages.

These smaller schools, which draw students from the same talent pool as Harvard, Penn and Yale, are now at a loss as to how to compete.

"What was a hard battle before might be a lost battle now," said Philo Hutcheson, co-chair of the Association for the Study of Higher Education archives.

Experts also predict that if smaller schools divert precious funds toward competition for middle-class students, student decisions will increasingly be based on price, not fit.

At Kenyon College, a percentage of students are eligible for loan-free packages, but not all. Jennifer Delahunty, Kenyon dean of admissions and financial aid, says she fears it will be more difficult to convince students that a Kenyon degree is worth post-graduation debt if they've also been accepted to Yale.

The media attention given to radical financial aid increases makes the job of admissions officials at small liberal arts schools even more difficult.

Nancy Benedict, vice president for enrollment services at Beloit College, says many prospective families may now have unreasonable expectations of financial aid at schools with smaller endowments.

The institutions reducing financial aid "are serving a very small fraction of the more than ten million college-bound students," Benedict says. "Our task now is to make need-based aid sensible."

However, worries over the changing nature of financial aid are not universal. Many liberal arts schools compete mostly with one another for their students, said Parker Beverage, dean of admissions and financial aid at Colby College.

Such schools would feel pressure "if all of a sudden, seven schools in our conference are no longer packaging loans for students who need financial aid," Beverage said.

Still, many college officials disapprove of shifting attention away from the needs of low-income students.

Donald Heller, chairman of the Council on Public Policy in Higher Education, says he worries that at institutions assisting higher income families, "these wealthy students will crowd out poor and middle income students."

Solving a lack of access goes beyond tuition, Hutcheson said - like the problems of additional travel and living costs and helping students understand their options.

More government involvement in helping families pay for college is one solution, according to higher-education experts.

Benedict says that she favors grants that are applicable at any school, but is skeptical that the federal government will take significant action anytime soon.

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