Elite institutions could afford to enroll more low-income students, study argues

According to a recent report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), many low-income students who are qualified to attend elite institutions don't.. 

In fact, at the most elite institutions, less than 20% of the students are Pell Grant recipients.

To compile the report, CEW researchers analyzed a number of studies and took into account students' standardized testing scores as well as admissions and retention data. The researchers found that roughly 150,000 Pell Grant recipients achieve test scores equivalent to students at elite institutions, but more than half of these students—86,000—do not attend a selective college.

However, the researchers found evidence that low-income students have better outcomes at selective institutions. When they do enroll at elite colleges, low-income students have a 78% graduation rate, compared with a 48% graduation rate at open-access schools. Yet at the most selective institutions, just 14% of students on average are Pell Grant recipients.

The researchers also argue that highly selective institutions have more than enough funds available to offer more financial aid and enroll more low-income students. According to the report, in recent years, the 69 most selective private institutions that enroll fewer than 20% Pell students also had average annual budget surpluses of $139 million.

The authors also report that these same institutions have endowments with a median value of $1.2 billion, but they acknowledge that a significant part of those endowments come from donations with designated purposes other than enrolling low-income students.

Nonetheless, writing for Education Dive, Pat Donachie argues the report could be a wake-up call to elite institutions regarding their marketing efforts aimed at low-income students.

"Elite colleges must make sure that the [Pell Grant student] gap is not due to a lack of strenuous marketing on their part to qualified students from low-income backgrounds," writes Donachie.

Donachie says that at many high schools schools serving these low-income students, guidance counselors are overworked, and therefore unable to help these students realize that elite colleges aren't out of reach.

For the elite colleges, that means that the burden falls on them to communicate with—and actively recruit—qualified low-income students.

Strategies for improving low-income recruitment efforts include:

  • Partnering with organizations that have relationships with low-income students, such as QuestBridge, the Posse Foundation, and the College Advising Corps;
  • Be transparent about financial aid from the start, since even with Pell Grants, low-income students often worry they won't be able to afford other costs associated with elite schools;
  • Acknowledge big-picture context when reviewing low-income students' applications, so as to avoid bias based on extracurriculars and test scores;
  • Consider dual-enrollment programs at schools serving disadvantaged students; and
  • Boost your outreach to high school education professionals;

(Bothwell, Times Higher Education, 5/2; Carnevale/Van Der Werf, Georgetown CEW report, accessed 5/4; Donachie, Education Dive, 5/3; Marcus, Hechinger Report, 5/2).

 4 high-impact practices to recruit low-income students

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