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California State University, Fresno

Elite colleges get lion's share of U.S. funds for financial aid

If there is any grand, elegant logic behind the federal government's disbursement of more than a billion dollars in college aid, then Maria Hernandez is humble enough to confess that it has escaped her.

Consider her point. Poverty is hardly a rarity among the students of California State University, Fresno, where she is the director of financial aid. Many come from families working in the fields nearby, on farms where students spend their summers and winter vacations harvesting peaches and sugar beets to stay in school.

About three hours and a world away sits Stanford University. Far fewer of its students are poor, yet the federal government gives Stanford about seven times as...