Report Raises Question: Why Are So Few Pell Students in Elite Schools?
A new report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has sparked a lively debate on the merits of class-based affirmative action in higher education.
The report found that approximately 86,000 Pell Grant recipients score well enough on standardized tests to qualify for selective colleges (1120 or higher on the SAT/ACT, according to the report) but do not attend. Instead, a majority of Pell Grant-eligible students attend less-selective, open-access schools with lower graduation rates, even though many of them are qualified to attend elite schools with higher graduation rates.
The report echoes the findings of a recent study from the Equality of Opportunity Project on the disparity between wealthy and poor students at America's top colleges and universities. At 38 schools, including five Ivy League schools, more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale (judged by their family's earnings) than from the entire bottom 60 percent.
As a solution to this class divide in higher education, the Georgetown report proposes a requirement that Pell Grant recipients make up at least 20 percent of a school’s enrollment. The recommendation is similar to recent bipartisan legislation authored by Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, which would mandate that schools with the lowest ratio of Pell Grant recipients admit more low-income students or pay a penalty.
To demonstrate the feasibility of their recommendation, the study’s authors, Anthony Carnevale and Martin Van Der Werf, identified several schools that already meet the 20 percent threshold. Among private universities, roughly 21 percent of Columbia University's students are Pell Grant recipients. On the public side, the University of California at Berkeley enrolls 31 percent.
The authors also singled out some schools that fall far short. Washington University in St. Louis had one of the lowest percentages for a private university – 6.7 percent – and the University of Wisconsin-Madison was at the bottom for public universities with 15.2 percent.
But the two universities are pushing back and insist that the findings present an incomplete picture. They argue that a variety of factors outside of the control of the universities impact enrollment. For example, poor high school counseling may deter many qualified, low-income students from applying to elite schools. In addition, low-income students tend to be more debt-averse and more likely to decline the hefty price tag at selective schools, even if they are accepted.
Second, many schools don't take students’ financial status into account in the admissions process. The aforementioned University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of those schools.
“It’s important to know that our admissions process is need-blind,” Meredith McGlone, spokesperson for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in an email. “In other words, a student’s financial information is not known or considered in the admissions process.”
McGlone added that the university enrolls a large number of undergraduates who just miss the cutoff for Pell eligibility. She also explained that Chancellor Rebecca Blank has recently proposed the creation of the Badger Promise program, which would guarantee at least two years of free tuition for eligible Wisconsin transfer students.
“We believe this program would be valued by Pell-eligible students who may consider it more economical to live at home and attend an institution closer to home initially and transfer later,” McGlone stated.
In a statement provided to RealClearEducation, Washington University in St. Louis disputed the report's findings and said that since 2013 it has dedicated significant resources to enrolling low-income students. “We have already seen significant results, with the percentage of Pell Grant-eligible students in our first-year classes more than doubling from 6 percent in 2013-14 to 13 percent in 2016-17,” the university said. “As recent media reports demonstrate, the databases that track national student statistics frequently still use 2013 figures, which do not reflect the strides we have already made.”
Furthermore, there's one other factor that complicates the issue of class-based affirmative action even more: Of the pool of 86,000 eligible students revealed in the Georgetown report, 81 percent are white.
In other words, to admit more Pell-eligible students would be to admit more white students, which would diminish racial or ethnic diversity at many college campuses. This would leave some schools to choose between prioritizing race or class.
For decades, many colleges and universities have utilized race-based admissions. But now the scales may be tipping in the other direction.
The class issue “has been coming to the fore for a while but it seems to be getting stronger,” Carnevale, director of the Georgetown center and lead author of the report, stated in a phone interview. “It has become an embarrassment to a lot of elites that they don't do more [for low-income students].”
Carnevale believes that if American higher education can meet the 20 percent threshold, it “would create substantial upward mobility” and, for individual students, the change would be “very substantial.”
Some colleges and universities are already trying to become more economically diverse. The American Talent Initiative was launched in 2016 by 30 schools, including Ivy League, state flagship, private universities and liberal arts colleges, with the goal of enrolling and graduating an additional 50,000 lower-income students by 2025. The organization is gaining steam and has already grown to 68 schools.
“There is a trend here that's interesting and I think the Trump victory strengthened that trend,” Carnevale added.
Christopher Beach is the editor of RealClearEducation.