Majority of qualified poor students in US ‘not at elite colleges’

Leading universities could widen access without harming academic standards or budgets, report says

May 2, 2017
Freshman entering Harvard admissions building
Source: Getty

The majority of low-income students in the US who are qualified to attend selective universities go to open-access colleges instead, according to a report that shows that most elite institutions could increase enrolment of poor students without significantly hurting their academic standards, graduation rates or budgets.

A study published by the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University examines the impact that a quota of low-income students would have on US institutions.

It finds that only 6 per cent, or 346, of the 5,500 universities and colleges in the US would have to change their student mix as a result of a proposed policy that would dictate that 20 per cent of students must be made up of Pell Grant recipients. The grants are a subsidy provided by the US government for students with financial need.

But such a policy would disproportionately fall on elite colleges; the median enrolment of Pell Grant recipients at the nation’s most selective colleges is only 14 per cent.

Bipartisan legislation introduced by two US senators last year requires colleges with the lowest ratio of Pell Grant recipients to admit more low-income students or pay a penalty.

Anthony Carnevale, CEW director and lead author of the report, The 20% Solution: Selective Colleges Can Afford to Take More Pell Grant Recipients, said that the common argument among college presidents against such a threshold is that they cannot afford to admit more low-income students and poorer students do not achieve the same outcomes.

However, the study rejects these claims.

It presents figures showing that about 150,000 Pell Grant recipients achieve admissions test scores that are as high as other students at selective colleges, but more than half (86,000) attend open-access colleges instead.

Furthermore, while low-income students at open-access universities have only a 48 per cent chance of graduating, this increases to 78 per cent for those who attend selective universities. These rates are virtually the same as those for non-Pell Grant recipients at both types of institution.

The report also argues that selective colleges have the money to withstand such a policy; the 69 most selective private colleges in the country each had an overall annual budget surplus of about $139 million (£108 million) between 2012 and 2015 and a median endowment of $1.2 billion, it said.

However, the report recognises that introducing a threshold will create difficult decisions for institutions. Selective universities will either need to increase overall enrolment, which means that they will be less exclusive; admit fewer international students, which means that they will receive less revenue; or give admissions preference to low-income students and leave many highly qualified students “on the outside looking in”.

Professor Carnevale said that the higher education system in the US “actively seeks status and brand value by excluding people” and that the only way to break this “dynamic” is to demand a change that allows universities to retain their competitive position while admitting more disadvantaged students.

He added that a government policy dictating a minimum threshold of low-income students is “well within the realm of possibility”.

“The Trump populist view of the world is that higher education is elitist. And, therefore, demanding working-class mobility is of interest even on the Republican side of the aisle now, and always has been [of interest] on the Democrat side,” he said.

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