Survey Shows Colleges Failing to Attract Low-income Students

The nation’s wealthiest colleges collectively have failed since 2004 to significantly boost low-income enrollment, and more than half saw declines, including the main campuses of Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh, a survey says.

The Chronicle of Higher Education findings published this week show that low-income students as defined by those receiving federal Pell Grants remained largely flat as a share of undergraduates on those campuses, at just under 15 percent. The maxiumum grant for this school year is $5,500.

The Chronicle looked at campuses with the 50 largest endowments, a group that includes Ivy League schools, other elite private colleges and a number of flagship public universities.

The Chronicle said Pell numbers remained generally static, even though the schools, facing public pressure this past decade to boost low-income enrollment, had added millions of dollars to their financial aid budgets and undertaken initiatives to attract those students.

The lackluster results are likely to rekindle debate about what’s to blame — too little federal financial aid for the poor, inadequate preparation of students in poorer school districts or admissions decisions by colleges bent on building their prestige.

Eighteen campuses saw Pell Grant recipient gains between 2004-05 and 2008-09, the most current year with available national data.

Notable among them was a 4.4 percentage point increase at Williams College, where Pell recipients as of 2008-09 totaled 321, or 14.9 percent of undergraduates. The University of Richmond, a school with relatively few Pell students compared to other wealthy schools, saw a 3.3 percentage point increase, bringing its Pell enrollment total to 351, or 8.8 percent of undergraduates.

Thirty-one other universities saw declines, while one school, Grinnell College, saw no change, according to The Chronicle, which used data from the federal government and colleges.

On Pitt’s main campus, Pell recipients declined from 3,572 in 2004-05 to 2,815 in 2008-09, The Chronicle said. Those recipients as a share of main campus undergraduates slipped by 3.1 percentage points from 16.1 percent in 2004-05 to 13 percent in 2008-09.

On Penn State’s main campus, Pell recipients declined from 6,248 to 6,047 students during the survey years. That means as a share of main campus undergraduates, Pell recipients declined by 1.9 percentage points to 14.8 percent by 2008-09.

Anna Griswold, Penn State assistant vice president and executive director for student aid, said the slippage was due partly to increased four-year offerings at the university’s branch campuses and a corresponding economic slowdown that made more low-income students hesitant to transfer to the main campus to complete their degrees.

"More of [those] students are choosing to stay at a campus closer to home," she said.

Pitt said in a statement that its survey showing was due to a change in the Pell eligibility formula that decreased the number of Pennsylvanians able to secure a grant, and to growth in the number of Pitt students ineligible because they are in nondegree programs. The statement said The Chronicle included "the College in High School program and other nondegree students" in Pitt’s numbers enrollment.

The Chronicle said Pitt, Penn State and two other public universities report their Pell data to the U.S. Department of Education for all campuses in their systems. The Chronicle asked those schools for main campus figures.

Financial aid experts say Pell recipients generally have yearly household incomes of less than $50,000.

One such expert, Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of and, said increased financial aid dollars have helped a greater share of Pell recipients who do enroll at these elite schools make it to graduation. But he said those students were still being crowded out in admissions by students from higher income levels.

The Chronicle said the University of California at Los Angeles had the highest Pell percentage among the 50 schools at 30.7 percent. The school with the smallest share of Pell recipients in the survey was Washington University in St. Louis, with 5.7 percent.


Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

Notify of