How can wealthy private colleges better serve low-income students?

Wealthy private colleges: Large endowments, few low-income students. It’s a rare instance of a stereotype matching available data. Generally, despite their prosperity, rich colleges don’t give many students of lesser means a shot at an elite, private education. “I don’t think it’s really that difficult for most of us on the college side to know where low-income students are. I think it’s the will to go out and pursue those students actively.” — Tim Brunold, USC’s dean of admissions But there are private institutions that buck this trend. At Williams College, a highly selective liberal arts college in rural Massachusetts, 22 percent of its roughly 2,000 students last academic year received Pell Grants — federal aid typically for students from families earning less than $40,000 a year. And Williams reported that its most recent six-year graduation rate for Pell students was 90 percent — nearly 40 points above the national average. Williams is rare. Nearly half of the nation’s wealthy private colleges and universities enroll so few Pell recipients that they would rank in the bottom five percent of schools enrolling such students. At many such institutions, the low-income students who do enroll graduate at far lower rates than their wealthier peers. The Hechinger Report examined four high-flying colleges with large endowments (together totaling more than $9 billion) that have high Pell-recipient enrollment rates and high completion rates. The colleges — Denison University in central Ohio, Grinnell College in rural Iowa, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and Williams — can provide a blueprint for well-heeled institutions that currently enroll low percentages of low-income students. Now may be a good time for colleges to learn from their peers. Last month former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg kicked off a “pledge drive” called the American Talent Initiative to get 270 colleges with high graduation rates to boost their Pell enrollment figures by more than 10 percent in the next decade. Congress is watching, too; last year it asked 56 elite private colleges to submit documents showing how many of their endowment dollars go toward financial aid, a sign that federal lawmakers are reconsidering whether these institutions should sit atop hundreds of billions of dollars tax-free. The four colleges examined here reported the following: – Denison’s Pell student enrollment rate for the 2014-15 academic year was 19 percent; in 2016, 80 percent of its Pell students graduated after just four years on campus. – Nearly a quarter of Grinnell’s students now receive Pell Grants, and its within-six-years graduation rate for Pell students ranged from 75 to 85 percent over the past three years. – USC’s Pell enrollment rate is now 21 percent, and its most recent six-year graduation rate for Pell students is 90 percent. – Williams, with a student body that is 22 percent Pell recipients, also helps 90 percent of those students graduate within six years. While they differ in size and strategies, all four colleges have Pell enrollment rates well above the average among private colleges with large endowments; all spend substantially on low-income student recruitment and financial aid; and all have high success rates in guiding their Pell students through to timely graduation. Asked what he thought of colleges with billion-dollar endowments and paltry Pell enrollment rates, Grinnell’s dean, Michael Latham, said: “I think they have work to do. I would encourage them to think seriously about the way they understand their mission, and think seriously about the broader contributions that we can make.” Finding the students Recruiting academically talented low-income students is expensive, in part because institutional budgets tend to rely on students who can pay close to the sticker price of attendance. To attract more students from humble origins, colleges must consider it integral to their identity, leaders from the four colleges said. “I think to do this requires a very strong institutional commitment, not just from a philosophical point of view, but also from a financial point of view,” said Richard Nesbitt, director of admission at Williams. “Having a strong endowment certainly helps.” Yet for all the wealth possessed by the four schools featured here, the biggest impact comes from regular interpersonal connections with prospective low-income students, their leaders said. Related: Are these the real heroes stepping up to get college knowledge to students who want and need it? In...

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