One of the most prominent strategies colleges and universities are following to enroll a diverse student body ahead of the next application cycle is prioritizing students from modest socioeconomic backgrounds. But higher education will first have to dig themselves out of a hole they’ve committed to for the past 10 years.
A new report from The New York Times has discovered that the nation’s most selective colleges have decreased their percentage enrollment of first-year students eligible for the Pell Grant by 2%. The latest data shows that less than a quarter (21%) of the country’s first-year cohorts comprise Pell-eligible students.
Comparing the 2010-11 and 2020-21 entering classes across 286 colleges, the analysis combed through student data from the National Center for Education Statistics. In total, it accounted for roughly 2.7 million students.
While the analysis illustrates a collective backstep by institutions on low-income student accessibility, it ultimately paints a nuanced picture. Some of the nation’s most prestigious schools have made a systemic commitment to improving their rates, while others have lagged or fallen sorely behind.
“University leaders find it hard to eliminate the squash or sailing team,” wrote Times author David Leonhard. “They find it easier to build a new building than to spend the money on financial aid. They have not been able to break fully with elite higher education’s roots as a preserve of the wealthy.”
The elite and highly endowed fare favorably
Save Brown University, all Ivy League schools recorded gains in their proportional enrollment of Pell-eligible students. Yale recorded the highest gains with an 8% improvement, while Harvard had the highest proportion at 22%.
Similarly, 63% of the nation’s most highly endowed institutions (a per-student endowment of $1 million or greater) recorded gains. However, less than half of these schools featured a first-year enrollment class of 20% or more Pell-eligible students.
How critical is endowment to enroll the neediest students?
Endowment generally plays a highly consequential role in an institution’s ability to enroll students from more humble backgrounds. While institutions with a sub-$100,000 endowment still enroll the highest proportion of Pell-eligible students, their rates fell. On the other hand, schools with over $500,000 improved their percentage.
For example, Princeton University, the wealthiest university among the Ivies, recorded the second-largest gains in Pell-eligible students. Yale, who had the largest improvement, is the second richest.
Conversely, seven of the 10 institutions to sport the most distressing drops in Pell-eligible students had a per-student endowment below $100,000. University of California, San Diego, whose endowment is less than $50,000, experienced a 23% drop. Unlike San Diego, five of the other six were small private schools.
“Part of holding schools accountable for that is understanding the economics of how you scale real retention efforts, how you scale between the excellence that students deserve, the student support that the poorer students need more of, at a price that they can afford, is brutally hard,” said Fordham University (N.Y.) President Tania Tetlow in a conversation with other small private colleges last week.
But endowment isn’t the end-all, be-all. Duke University, an institution considered an Ivy Plus with an endowment per student of over $1 million, was in the bottom 30 of all institutions for the proportion of Pell students. Duke announced a new financial aid program in June that will cover the total price of undergraduate tuition for current and prospective students from the middle class and below from the Carolinas.
“Somehow, though, economic diversity waits in line behind other priorities—like the construction of gleaming new student centers, the rapid expansion in the number of university administrators, the admission of affluent children with various connections and the maintenance of dozens of sports teams, some of which attract few fans,” wrote Leonhard.