NYT names schools that help students with upward mobility

Leonhardt: 'Economic diversity is within the power of any top university'

The New York Times ranked the nation's best colleges for low-income students—and six different University of California (UC) campuses were named among the top seven schools, David Leonhardt reports.

The Times includes 179 top schools in its College Access Index, which is based on a combination of three factors:

  • Percentage of students receiving Pell grants;
  • Graduation rate of students receiving Pell grants; and
  • Net cost for low- and middle-class students.

"The big challenge for American higher education is that it has to be a gateway through which talented young people can thrive, regardless of their background," says Howard Gillman, chancellor at UC-Irvine and a political scientist.

College Access Index Top 10:

1. UC-Irvine
2. UC-Davis
3. UC-Santa Barbara
4. UC-San Diego
5. UC-Los Angeles
6. University of Florida
7. UC-Berkeley
8. Vassar College
9. Amherst College
10. Pomona College

The colleges enrolling more diverse student bodies—in terms of social class, race, religion, and geography—range in size and type.

Related: Vassar College wins award for commitment to economic diversity

"This variety suggests that economic diversity is within the power of any top university. The question is whether the university's leaders decide it's a priority," Leonhardt writes.

And while colleges in California may have an advantage due to the large population of high-ability, low-income students there, the colleges still take significant steps to enroll that group.

Historically, UC-Irvine kept tuition low and emphasizes recruiting transfer students from community colleges, which contributes to its success in the rankings, Leonhardt writes. It is among one of the colleges where the five-year graduation rate for Pell grant students exceeds the overall rate, he says.

"It takes a lot of systematic effort," says Gillman.

However, amid declining state support, UC now enrolls more, higher-paying out-of-state students—even as the state's population grows, Leonhardt writes.

Higher education "remains the most reliable ticket to the middle class and beyond," he says, pointing to the 2.7% unemployment rate and the high earnings of college graduates.

Among findings from the 2015 College Access Index:

  • Growth in overall economic diversity has stalled—the median share of first-year, Pell grant students has remained about 17% since the 2011-2012 academic year. 
  • The overall diversity rate hide college-level performances. Some colleges made significant improvements—such as Pomona, which grew its share of first-year Pell grant students to 22% from 16% three years ago. Others, including many UC campuses, saw that figure decline since 2011.
  • Most low-income students at top colleges succeed. Among the institutions in the index, the median six-year graduation rate for Pell grant students is just one percentage point lower than the overall rate—84% compared with 85%, respectively.

"That's a big reason these colleges matter: They don't leave many students saddled with the toxic combination of debt and no degree," Leonhardt writes (Leonhardt, "The Upshot," New York Times, 9/21).

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