As students flood the campuses of the country’s elite colleges this fall, those schools remain, mostly, enclaves of privilege. This persists despite the fact that there are many high schoolers from low-income families that make top grades and test scores in numbers that are twice the percentage in the general population as at prestigious universities.
Ten years ago, there was talk of selective colleges enrolling more students that don’t come from affluent backgrounds, but recent federal surveys found those schools have had virtually no change during that time, and by some measures, non-affluent students make up less than 15 percent of the student body.
Experts say that getting low-income kids into elite schools is seen as key to social mobility, according to a New York Times report, because students that attend those schools are more likely to become “leaders in their field.”
“Higher education has become a powerful force for reinforcing advantage and passing it on through generations,” Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Times.
As race-based affirmative action has sloped off, it’s been replaced by greater overall diversity in terms of geography, gender and religion. But most of those students still tend to be affluent. One 2004 study found that at selective private schools, more fathers of freshmen were doctors than teachers, clergymen, farmers, military and hourly workers combined.
Part of the problem is that low-income students can be expensive in terms of tuition breaks and financial aid, which can be a strain for schools with smaller budgets. Still, some schools are making strides, and it’s not always those with the biggest endowments.
The Upshot created a “College Access Index“ by combining data on enrollment and tuition costs to measure how each school is attracting and graduating low-income and middle-class students.
At the top of the list is Vassar, a former all-women’s college in upstate New York, where about 23 percent of freshmen in recent years are made up from the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution (according to Pell Grant qualifications). Second to Vassar is Grinnell, in central Iowa, followed by UNC Chapel Hill, Smith, Amherst and Harvard.
Some of these are among the most affluent schools in the country, measured by endowment per student, but the wealthiest schools don’t always score high. Swarthmore and the California Institute of Technology have relatively low numbers of low-income students, and Washington University in St. Louis, or “Wash U,” only has about 6 percent of its recent freshman class as Pell Grant recipients, although it’s one of the 25 richest schools on a per-student basis.
Admitting high-performing students from poor backgrounds is important to the economy and developing a bigger portion of the country’s brainpower, Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell, told the Upshot. It “is the smart thing to do, because the country needs as much brainpower as we can get. And it’s the right thing to do, because it’s not fair that your ability to get a college education can be determined by your ability to buy an education.”