The Supreme Court decision banning race-based affirmative action has thrust economic diversity to the center of the debate over college admissions.
Many supporters of the old affirmative action see economic diversity as a way to continue creating racially diverse college classes, given the large racial gaps that exist in income and wealth. Many critics of the old affirmative action argue that economic factors are a better measure of disadvantage anyway: These critics argue that lower-income applicants of all races should be given credit for what they’ve overcome.
Given this background, my colleagues at The Times Magazine and I decided to shine a light on economic diversity at nearly 300 of the country’s most selective colleges, public and private. This morning, we’re publishing a measure we call the College Access Index. It’s an updated version of a project The Times last published in 2017. Our goal is to help readers understand which colleges were already enrolling economically diverse classes before the Supreme Court decision — and therefore can serve as a model for others.
Today’s newsletter offers highlights from the project and links if you want to go deeper.
‘They are there’
A decade ago, Washington University in St. Louis was the least economically diverse college in the country. Only about 6 percent of its students received Pell Grants, federal scholarships that typically go to students in the bottom half of the income distribution.
But some university leaders were uncomfortable with the situation and began pushing for change. As they did, they heard a concern from the board of trustees: Would Washington University need to lower its academic standards to enroll more middle-class and poor students? After administrators studied the data, they concluded that the answer was no.
“There were plenty of low-income kids with high scores that we hadn’t been admitting,” Holden Thorp, the provost at the time, told me. Ron Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins, another college that has become more diverse over the past decade, said the same thing about such students: “They are there, and they do come.”
This point is crucial. It means that colleges enrolling mostly affluent students are making a choice. They are bypassing qualified students — more qualified, sometimes — from humbler backgrounds. The colleges are choosing not to prioritize upward mobility.
The new Wash. U.’s
Our analysis found:
Most elite colleges have become more diverse over the past decade. These colleges — with the largest endowments and lowest admissions rates — still enroll a disproportionate share of very affluent students, but they also enroll more low- and middle-income students than in the past. Here is a selection of 20 prominent colleges:
Some of the biggest increases occurred at colleges without billion-dollar endowments. “We’re actually not fulfilling our mission unless we have a diverse group of students,” said Kathleen Harring, the president of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. To afford it, Muhlenberg has expanded its corporate partnerships for adult-education programs and started a fund-raising campaign focused on financial aid, among other efforts.
Eric Boynton, the president of Beloit College, in Wisconsin, told me with a laugh that “there are no lazy rivers” on his campus — a reference to the deluxe pools that some colleges have built. Beloit keeps its administrative staffing lean and fields relatively few sports teams. “We’re here to transform lives,” Boynton said.
But at most of the 286 colleges in our analysis, the Pell share fell over the past decade. Among the reasons: Some states have cut funding for higher education, and many colleges have chosen to spend money on buildings and staff rather than financial aid.
What are now the country’s least economically diverse colleges? This chart shows the colleges with a Pell share 10 percent or below in the most recent year in a federal database:
Some of these colleges told me they were committed to enrolling more lower-income students in the years ahead, including Bates, Santa Clara, Scripps and S.M.U. And Caltech has become significantly more diverse in the past few years. Other colleges offered general endorsements of diversity and said they focused their resources on ensuring that lower-income students could succeed. (I find this unpersuasive because lower-income students also have high graduation rates at selective colleges that enroll many more of them.)
Some administrators also said — correctly — that Pell was not a comprehensive measure of diversity. It can’t distinguish between a student with a household income of, say, $100,000 and one with $1,000,000 because neither is likely to receive a Pell Grant.
Nonetheless, other data — from both academic research and the federal government — suggests that most colleges with a low Pell share are not in fact enrolling large numbers of students just above the cutoff. Any college that believes it’s doing so is free to release data showing the full income distribution of its students. In almost all cases, a college’s Pell share is an accurate reflection of its commitment to economic diversity.
More in The Magazine
Our table showing 286 colleges, created by my colleague Ashley Wu, is here.
In The Times Magazine, I profiled Duke — which has recently been the country’s least economically diverse elite college (as the first chart in this newsletter indicates). I heard a consistent message from lower-income Duke students: It’s a special college that is transforming their lives, but they wish there were more students like them on campus.
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