Michael Melia

STORRS, CONN.: Spencer Mulligan knew his family could pay for his college education, even without loans or grants. So when the University of Connecticut offered a merit award of $20,000 over four years, he saw it as a bonus.

As a discount on in-state tuition, it brought the cost well below half of what his family might have paid at his other top choices, Penn State or the University of Vermont.

“My dad was kind of split because he didn’t want to push me into going to a school because of financial reasons,” said Mulligan, 21, a computer science student from Darien, one of the nation’s wealthiest communities. “Without financial reasons I might have gone to Penn State, but on the other hand he was like, ‘If you go to UConn, it will save us a bunch of money.’

“That means now I can pressure him into getting me stuff,” he joked.

Financial aid, traditionally a lifeline for poorer students at public colleges, is increasingly being used to attract students from more affluent families. In competition with private schools and other public institutions, the state schools are using the money to lure the most qualified students, raise average test scores and entice students from high-income families who can pay the rest of the full sticker price.

Critics say that by devoting aid to students who don’t need it, state schools are punishing the poor, making it harder for them to attend college when the gap between tuition costs and affordability is only growing.

“The reality is that for poor families, it’s a question of whether the kids go to college at all. For the better-off family, it’s a question of which college,” said Harold Levy, director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides need-based scholarships. “It’s a tragic waste of talent. It alters the lives of students.”

Of the institutional aid given last year to UConn freshmen, the amount not based on need rose to $19.9 million, up from $12.9 million five years earlier. But the school also increased the amount of need-based aid it offered, $50.9 million, up from $38.9 million five years earlier.

State universities are adopting an approach long used by private schools, according to Joni Finney, an author of a report on college affordability from the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education this year that found investment in merit aid outpacing need-based aid.

It said states’ provision of need-based financial aid barely changed from 1996 to 2012, while state aid for high-income students rose more than 450 percent.

The study found aid for non-needy students also growing faster at private, four-year colleges, where institutional aid for students whose families earn above $125,000 increased from $1,950 to $6,400 over the same period.

Aid to students whose families make less than $25,000 rose from $2,900 to $7,700.