Divided We Learn

OPINION: Five reasons colleges can enroll more low-income students

New findings in a growing body of research

Great Hall, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Great Hall, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

More than 80 leading colleges and universities are committed to a 2025 national goal of enrolling 50,000 more lower-income students in institutions with a 70 percent or higher graduation rate.

This bold effort comes through the American Talent Initiative, launched late last year by Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor.

When people ask me why I believe in the initiative, I love talking about the talent and drive of my first-generation mentees. I tell them about Michelle Bailey, from Alexandria, Pennsyvania, who graduated ninth in her class at Franklin & Marshall and now holds a Fulbright ETA Award in Taiwan. I also tell them about Ashley Christopherson, from Reno, Nevada, who graduated magna cum laude and now advocates for rural students through the College Advising Corps.

That said, to make the best argument for expanding college opportunity, we can also move beyond anecdotes and cite the findings of a growing body of research. Here are five crucial points that stand on a bedrock of evidence.

Related: New study shows more degrees earned at colleges and universities that serve minorities

1. America has a deep pool of strong, financially needy students for colleges to recruit. That’s the key finding from Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery’s The Missing “One-Offs”: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students.

Just how deep is the pool? Hoxby and Avery identified 25,000 to 35,000 students whose academic records place them in the top four percent of all students and whose families earn less than $41,472 per year.

These exceptional students are qualified to go almost anywhere, but more than half (53 percent) do not apply to even a single college with high graduation rates. And they represent just a portion of the available lower-income talent — if we would just lower the barriers to enrollment.

2. When these students attend selective institutions, they graduate at very high levels,which Joshua Wyner, John Bridgeland, and John DiLulio showed in the 2007 study,The Achievement Trap: How America Is Failing Millions of High-Achieving Students from Lower-Income Families.The authors found that 90 percent of lower-income students who enroll at the most selective colleges graduate at rates identical to their higher-income peers.

While more must be done by all colleges to foster equity of experience and a deeper sense of belonging among lower-income students, this research reminds us that the ATI is building upon an important foundation of high graduation rates.

3. When lower-income students earn degrees from highly selective institutions, they skyrocket economically. That’s a key finding in Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility, by Raj Chetty and colleagues. This 2017 research shows that among graduates of top colleges, more than half of those from families with incomes in the bottom 20 percent ended up earning wages in the top 20 percent by their mid-thirties.

Thus, although college remains the ultimate elevator of social mobility, we need more students to get on board.

4. Society benefits, too, when we prepare more college graduates to hold critical high-skilled jobs, which projections tell us will open in massive numbers as the Baby Boomers retire.

Authors Anthony Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl have predicted that demand for college-educated workers will outpace supply by 300,000 jobs per year. Their study, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018 shows that jobs in new and existing industries increasingly require higher levels of education—and that America needs skilled graduates in order to compete in today’s tech-fueled global knowledge economy.

Related: Five things American colleges need to do to help black and Latino students

In other words, our investments in sending great students to top schools will pay off for society when they become the taxpayers, business leaders and job creators of tomorrow.

Which brings us to a key question: Educationally and financially, can America’s most selective (and, least inclusive) colleges open their doors more widely? Can they marshal the will and the skill to make progress? Here, again, recent scholarship offers hope:

5. A variety of schools, big and small, public and private, have already made noteworthy progress, Martin Kurzweil and Jessie Brown show in Funding Socioeconomic Diversity at High Performing Colleges and Universities.

Kurzweil and Brown look at five highly selective institutions that have maintained high levels of Pell Grant enrollment or have purposely engineered significant increases in recent years: University of California, Berkeley; University of Richmond; University of Texas at Austin; Vassar College; and my own institution, Franklin & Marshall College. Each college developed strategies given its own resources, strengths and student markets. Each has built credibility with meaningful data analysis and by engaging stakeholders like faculty and boards in the work.

Taken together, these five research-supported claims make a coherent case for the American Talent Initiative: It’s wise to ensure that Michelle Baileys and Ashley Christophersons in every community can have more college choices.

Doing so is feasible and valuable — for their futures, and America’s.

Daniel Porterfield is president of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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Daniel Porterfield

Daniel Porterfield has served as president of Franklin & Marshall College since 2011. Prior to his appointment at F&M, Porterfield served as senior vice president… See Archive

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