For years, Washington University in St. Louis has held the dubious distinction of being the least socioeconomically diverse college in the country.
Just 85 members of its freshmen class entering in the fall of 2012 (5%) came from families with incomes low enough (typically below $50,000 a year) to qualify for a federal Pell Grant. (That’s the most recent year with federal data available.)
Washington University's proportion of low-income students is remarkably tiny, considering more than a third of all full-time undergraduates qualify for the need-based Pell Grants. It’s also low for schools with tough academic standards. Other elite colleges maintain top reputations while providing many more opportunities to the non-rich: About a third of the students at the University of California-Berkeley—generally considered one of the top universities in the world—qualify for Pell Grants, for example. And more than 20% of students at elite schools like Amherst College and Columbia University come from low-income families.
Adding financial injury to this insult: "country club" private colleges that bar the door to the poor—thus reinforcing socioeconomic inequality—are receiving large tax subsidies from you and me, in part because of their tax-exempt status.
But there finally may be a little good college opportunity news on the horizon. Perhaps in response to the growing criticism of taxpayer subsidies of such country club colleges, some schools like Washington University are starting to at least inch towards providing more opportunities.
This January, Washington University announced a plan to double the proportion of Pell Grant recipients that it enrolls by 2020. Under the plan, Wash U. will spend at least $25 million a year for five years to increase the share of students who qualify for Pell Grants.
“Improving the socioeconomic diversity of our student body is not just important; it’s critical to our success as a university,” Holden Thorp, the university’s provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said in a news release.
Four other private colleges that currently have low-income populations of only about 10% tell me they are also now working to recruit more low-income students.
Some of the colleges say the problem—and solution—boils down to money.
Officials at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., for example, say one key reason their student body is currently only 10% low-income is that the financial crisis of 2008 reduced their endowment, which is used to fund financial aid. They are now trying to raise more money for scholarships so a more diverse group of students can afford to attend the school. “We have a responsibility to increase access wherever we can,” says school president George Bridges, who is leaving Whitman at the end of the school year to become president of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
Likewise, Elon University, in North Carolina, is in the middle of a 10-year campaign to double the amount of need-based institutional aid that it awards. “Elon must not become a gated community open only to those of privilege,” the college states on its website, “and our classrooms and campus life will be much richer when we recruit more students from diverse backgrounds who challenge and lead us by sharing their own life stories…” Because of the difficulty of raising the large sums needed, however, Elon is making “slow progress” in increasing the proportion of Pell students it enrolls, says President Leo Lambert. “We are digging hard into this issue of access, because it makes a big difference in the quality of the kind of community we aspire to be,” he says.
Other colleges are combining fundraising with new recruiting efforts. Colorado College is raising more money for financial aid and partnering with nonprofits such as QuestBridge to recruit low-income historically underrepresented students. “We are really diversifying the pool of highly qualified low-income students that we enroll,” says president Jill Tiefenthaler.
And Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, is increasing its diversity in part by changing its application. In 2013, Kenyon simplified its admissions application, removing extra essays that the school found discouraged first-generation students. It seems to be working: For next year’s incoming class, Kenyon admitted 408 minority students, up 9% from last year, and 128 first-generation college students, the second most the college has admitted in the last decade. “It’s clear to us that we can do better than where we are and where we’ve been in recent years,” says Sean Decatur, Kenyon’s president.
But this battle is far from won. There are still plenty of other colleges that aren’t making an effort to provide opportunities to more than a handful of lucky low-income students. “Just trying to increase the number of Pell Grant recipients might be good for PR, but may be bad policy for our college,” says Randy Helm, the outgoing president of Muhlenberg College, a private college in Pennsylvania where only 8% of the students come from low income families.
Part of the reason is financial. Washington University can afford to spend more on financial aid, since its endowment equates to about $500,000 per student. Muhlenberg’s endowment equates to one-tenth of that: $50,000 per student.
Helm, who is retiring in June, doesn’t think it would be healthy for Muhlenberg to make a concerted effort to recruit and finance substantially more Pell-eligible applicants. If it did, the school would have to spend its entire $36 million financial aid budget supporting them, and wouldn’t have any aid left for middle-income students who are also struggling to pay the school’s $55,000 annual cost of attendance.
“We’re not going to be a school that serves the very, very rich and the very, very poor,” he says. “I don’t think that would be fair to middle-income students, the college, or the country.”
Another reason for the lack of college opportunities may be the pursuit of prestige. Muhlenberg, for example, devotes a significant share of its institutional aid to the pursuit of high-achieving students, who often come from well-to-do families.
A page on Muhlenberg’s website, entitled “The Real Deal on Financial Aid,” acknowledges that the college and many of its competitors often use institutional aid as a “recruiting tool.” “It used to be that you could try for that reach school and if you got in, you didn’t have to worry because everybody who got in, who needed money, got money,” the college’s financial aid office states. “Today, however, as colleges are asked to fund more and more of their own operation with less and less assistance from government, foundations, and families, they are increasingly reluctant to part with their money to enroll students who don’t raise their academic profile.”
Muhlenberg provides “merit aid”—which is not based on financial need—to about 32% of its freshmen, with an average award of nearly $12,500 per student, according to data the college reports to magazines that publish college rankings.
Higher education researchers, the news media, and even the White House have been putting colleges on notice that they must do a better job serving low-income students. It’s encouraging to see that this pressure has been pushing some of the biggest laggards to make progress in this area. Those colleges that continue to hold out, however, deserve additional scrutiny. At a time of growing inequality, we can no longer afford to subsidize colleges that cater to the rich at the expense of the poor.
Stephen Burd is a senior policy analyst with New America’s Education Policy Program. This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.