ICYMI: Selective Schools May Be Turning Away Qualified Low-Income Students, Report Says

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Tens of thousands of high-achieving Pell Grant recipients may be neglected by selective colleges. But a new report suggests that the most selective colleges and universities could be enrolling more low-income students without hurting their graduation rates or their budgets.

The report, published today by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, found that although most Pell Grant recipients attend open-access colleges that tend to have lower graduation rates, 86,000 of those students are academically qualified to attend highly selective institutions. Those recipients, the report found, score at or above the median on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT for students who attend selective colleges.

“Highly qualified Pell Grant students are being turned away from the opportunity for an elite college education, which is more and more open only to the wealthy,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the center and lead author of the report, in a statement.

There’s hesitation on both sides when it comes to low-income students attending selective institutions.

Many students worry that even if they are admitted, they won’t be able to afford the cost of attendance, as a Pell Grant covers only a small portion. Instead, they might choose to attend their local community college, or an in-state public university.

Others have also said that selective colleges do not enroll more low-income students because it could drag down their graduation rates, or put a strain on their budgets – two claims Carnevale’s report challenges.

“Selective colleges, in their push for prestige and to maintain their all-important rankings, compete for an elite group of students,” the report said. “These selective colleges and universities have argued that they are always searching for qualified low-income students, but their search can only go so far. They argue that Pell Grant recipients cannot do the academic work that is necessary for them to succeed, and that the institutions themselves cannot afford the increase in financial aid budgets that would be required to enable these students to attend.”

According to the report, the majority of Pell recipients graduate at “almost exactly the same rate” as all students at selective colleges, with 78 percent graduating at selective colleges and universities, compared with 48 percent at open-access colleges. Carnevale also found that the 69 most selective private institutions that have a population with less than 20 percent Pell Grant recipients each had an annual budget surplus of $139 million over the last four years, and a median endowment of $1.2 billion.

Carnevale argues in the report that while “freeing up more money for need-based aid would require strategic budget reallocations, the size of these budget surpluses and endowments indicate that these colleges have more than enough resources to comply.”

Because many of the arguments against increasing Pell Grant recipient enrollment at the most selective colleges can be debunked, Carnevale argues, perhaps there should be a minimum threshold that requires institutions to enroll at least 20 percent Pell Grant recipients. Today, 346 institutions would fall short by that measure – 163 of which are in the top three categories of selectivity.

In addition to making the budgetary adjustments to provide enough aid for a higher number of Pell Grant recipients, admitting more of these students would create tough choices in admission practices for selective institutions. Carnevale argues they could either increase enrollment, admit fewer international students, or admit Pell-eligible students over those they traditionally would have accepted, all of which would be difficult choices.

“Although there are many tradeoffs to consider, perhaps the most important is that the best colleges and universities have the opportunity to serve more low-income students than they are currently,” the report said. “These students now go to colleges from which they have only about a 50-50 chance of graduating. Enrolling them at colleges from which they have close to an 80 percent chance of graduating could go a long way toward advancing equity in this country—by giving students in poor financial circumstances a real chance to succeed.”


Publication Date: 5/2/2017

Joseph D | 5/2/2017 3:4:15 PM

Test Test.

David S | 5/2/2017 11:2:27 AM

I wish studies such as this would also examine the choices made by students at both the application and decision stages. I don't remember the exact statistics, but a very high percentage of students enroll at a school in close proximity to their home; my experience and my gut tell me that this number is probably higher (and the distance closer) for low income students, who are more likely to have family obligations, limited transportation options, etc. So there may not be an "elite college" within the, say, 50-mile radius the student may be considering.

And then even if low income students do apply, if they are well prepared academically, they likely have been admitted to a number of schools and have plenty of good options. There's nothing you can do to assure that they enroll at your a mandate that a selective, affluent school enroll x% of Pell Grant recipients is a meaningless number, entirely beyond the school's control.

No doubt some who support the author's theory would say that what I'm saying is a perfect example of the problem and I'm proving his point...but it's reality. Enrollment management is easy...just ask anyone who's never done it.

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