Are Selective Colleges Really Boxing Out Low-Income Students? New Study Says 'No.'

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

In recent years, research and stories have surfaced claiming more selective institutions of higher education may be shutting out those who need the pathway to economic mobility most. But a new report out today from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) claims that while low-income students are indeed underrepresented at selective colleges and universities, there hasn't actually been a decline in their share on campus.

Overall, authors Jason Delisle and Preston Cooper found that the share of low-income students at the country's most selective institutions has not declined, and instead has held relatively steady between 1999-2000 and 2015-16. On the other hand, the share of students from high-income families increased during the mid-2000s. But the strongest trend, they said, was a decline in the share of middle-income students, those in the middle two income quartiles with family incomes roughly between $53,000 and $99,000, depending on the year in question.

"This trend has received relatively little attention from the education community and the national media," they wrote. "It suggests that the narrative regarding income stratification at selective colleges is only half right. Enrollment at selective colleges has changed over time, but it is middle-income students, not low-income students, who are becoming less represented on these campuses."

The report comes in the wake of others that more or less argue that while other types of universities have increased their share of low-income students over time, the most selective and competitive universities have stagnated. The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, for example, found in a report released in May that the more competitive and selective an institution is, the lower the number of students receiving Pell Grants at the institution is.

Delisle and Cooper wrote that access and affordability among the nation's most selective institutions "is far less dire than many would have us believe."

There are many reasons for the apparent discrepancy between studies. Delisle and Cooper said that many previous studies have relied on data with limitations, focused on a narrow scope of institutions, or used the Pell Grant as a proxy for financial need, which Delisle has previously argued is problematic. For their study, Delisle and Cooper analyzed income data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a comprehensive federal study that is now conducted every two years. They also defined "selective colleges" as the 200 most selective public and private institutions by calculating the average acceptance rate and SAT/ACT score of enrolled students over a 15-year period, and conducted a separate analysis for public flagship universities. And whereas other studies might not include certain student sub-groups, such as independent students or those enrolled part-time, the AEI study includes those students, and breaks the data down to show results for just dependent students.

Previous research and news articles, they wrote, have focused on trends within higher education that contribute to issues with higher education access for some students, such as cuts in per-student state funding, increases in merit-based aid, increases in tuition, or influxes of out-of-state students at public institutions.

"It is logical to assume that such trends would work against low-income students' representation at America's most elite colleges," they wrote. "And it is easy to believe reports that find increasing economic stratification at selective universities given that the total cost of attendance has increased rapidly. … But narratives surrounding low-income students' representation at selective schools often rely on incomplete evidence."

One limitation Delisle and Cooper cite is the use of Pell Grants as a proxy for low-income students. That assumption is not the most appropriate, they argue, because not all low-income students receive Pell Grants, and many middle-income students also receive Pell Grants. Additionally, using Pell Grant rates as an indication of low-income student enrollment over time is "less reliable," they said, because eligibility standards for the federal grant have changed over the years.

When broken down to focus only on dependent students, the new report shows enrollment for students in the lowest income quartile remained relatively steady between 1999-2000 and 2011-12 (between 8.1 percent and 9.9 percent), and increased in 2015-16, although they caution that low-income students may be overrepresented in the 2015-16 NPSAS.

Meanwhile, enrollment for those in the highest income quartile made up a significantly higher share, ranging from about 52 percent in 1999-2000 and 2003-04, and increasing to as high as 57.5 percent in 2007-08, before falling to 56.3 percent in 2011-12. But the most statistically significant change that can be seen in the data, they said, is the decrease in enrollment for students in the middle two income quartiles, dropping from 25.2 percent in 1999-2000 to 20.5 percent in 2011-12.

Delisle and Cooper also looked at the same trends for students overall, including independent students, and found that the trends for low-income student enrollment and middle-income student enrollment remained the same.

"On selective college campuses, we are no less likely to find a student from the bottom income quartile today than at any time in the past 16 years," they wrote.

Still, they said, the findings point to a larger issue concerning college access at selective institutions, as those from the highest income quartile are "vastly overrepresented" compared with students from other income brackets.

"The middle class may be far more susceptible to the trends and practices that observers worried would shut low-income students out of selective colleges," they wrote. "It may also be that these students are caught between two competing goals and pressures that selective universities face in their enrollment practices."


Publication Date: 7/12/2018

David S | 7/12/2018 3:46:52 PM

A few ways to look at this. One is that it contradicts (if not quite disproves) the conventional wisdom that higher cost, selective schools don't satisfactorily serve low income students. Another is that since the data simply hasn't changed over a period of x number of years, it could just mean that these students have been underserved all along, and this has remained static...just that now they aren't serving middle class students well either.

What often gets ignored in this argument is that a) schools can't ultimately control who applies there or which admitted students accept their offer, and b) the vast majority of postsecondary students in this country attend a school close to home. If there isn't a selective college within that circle on the map that shows the perimeter of where a student is most likely to attend, that student is unlikely to apply to any selective college. If there's a workable solution to this, I'm sure a lot of college and university leaders are all ears.

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