US colleges push Biden on student aid but overlook their own role

Institutions that emphasise racial equity are less vociferous about addressing economic diversity in student body, some argue

February 11, 2021
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US universities, while asking the new Biden administration and Congress to dramatically boost financial support for low-income students, may be stagnating or backsliding in their own efforts to ensure equity.

The problem, experts warned, reflects the fact that while US colleges have made high-profile efforts to become more racially inclusive, they have struggled to make progress on economic diversity.

In part, higher education is handicapped by decades of governmental disinvestment in institutions and students. But in many cases, experts said, universities have been shifting significant portions of their own aid towards attracting wealthier applicants.

US colleges have grown “a lot more conscious” about racial diversity, said Martin Van Der Werf, a policy analyst at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “But higher education in general is not very conscious of becoming more class diverse.”

One high-profile example of the problem is the University of California system, which has touted large gains in applications for its 2021-22 intake. But California acknowledged that the number of applications from students from low-income families fell by about 3 per cent across the 10-campus system.

That general trend was now appearing in autumn semester applications nationwide, said Jenny Rickard, president of The Common Application, a leading provider of admissions services. “Whether this ends up as a net gain or a net reversal” for lower-income students in September “will depend on the way that colleges develop their admission and yield models”, Dr Rickard said.

Overall, US college enrolment among students from poverty-level backgrounds has risen steadily, from 29 per cent in 1996 to 39 per cent in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. But lower-income students remain far less likely to seek a four-year degree, to do so at a higher-ranked institution, and to complete their course of study.

Colleges have regularly attributed such poor numbers among lower-income students to sagging government aid. Shortly after announcing its record autumn application rates, the California system outlined its own campaign to pressure the Biden administration and the new Democrat-led Congress to keep the US president’s commitment to double the value of the Pell Grant, the main federal subsidy for lower-income college students.

The share of the blame, however, is tough for experts to apportion. Aid dollars distributed by US institutions exceed those from federal and state governments combined, and the New America thinktank has issued a series of reports in recent years making the case that universities have systematically shifted their aid allocations to benefit wealthier students at the expense of poorer ones.

The leading tactic has involved the growth of “merit” aid – a term for tuition assistance not tied to financial need. Measuring merit aid is difficult for reasons that include the tendency of institutions to engage in “discounting”, in which they raise their official tuition charges and then provide corresponding increases in merit aid.

That strategy has advantages that include making the institution appear more elite and more generous with its aid, while maximising revenues from the very wealthiest families who pay full rates. As a result, some increases in merit aid could be legitimately cast as an attempt to help poorer students.

Faulting universities over merit aid is “not as simple as it sounds”, said Sandy Baum, an education policy specialist at the Urban Institute. Some institutions “really feel that they won’t be able to make their class, and they won’t be able to offer the resources to the people with need, if they don’t pull in some students who can afford to pay”, Dr Baum said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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