Divided We Learn

Wealthy students pushing out low-income students at top public universities, new research shows

Financial aid policies may be speeding up the trend

Between 1999 and 2013, the share of students in the bottom 40 percent of income at the University of Iowa dropped while those in the top 20 percent increased.

More than half of the country’s top public universities replaced low-income students with affluent ones over the past 14 years, according to a new report. 

The study provides evidence to back up the sense in many communities that climbing into the middle class has become increasingly difficult for low-income families. It may also help explain some of the pervasive anger and feelings of being “left behind” that has shaped American politics since last year’s presidential election.  

Since the late 1990s, nearly two-thirds of selective public universities reduced the share of traditional-aged students they enrolled from the bottom 40 percent of the income scale. In addition, two-thirds of these universities increased the share of students from the top 20 percent of the income ladder. And half of them did both at the same time, meaning the wealthiest students took seats at the expense of poorer students. 

“Public universities were set up to serve the public and to be cheaper alternatives,” said Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, who edited the report, titled Moving On Up? “But more and more they are becoming like the privates, and it’s getting worse.” 

RelatedThe troubling use of ‘merit aid’ at public flagships and research universities 

The shift towards enrolling wealthier students is not only occurring at flagship universities and prestigious public research institutions, but also at regional universities that have traditionally provided access to college for a broad range of students, regardless of their socioeconomic background. The trend is not concentrated in one area of the country or in urban centers. 

Between 1999 and 2013, the share of affluent students at North Dakota State University rose by 17 percentage points, while the share of low-income students fell by 10 points. At the University of Arkansas, wealthier students increased by 15 points while low-income ones dropped by 8 points. And at Iowa State University, affluent students jumped by 10 percentage points while low-income students decreased by 5 points. 

In an effort to sort out why and how the changes happened, the report’s authors looked at how some of the universities with the biggest shifts in population were spending their financial aid. Were they using their scholarship dollars to attract wealthier students? At some universities, the answer appeared to be yes. 

The University of Alabama spent more than $100 million on non-need-based aid in 2014-15, which was the most of any public university that year. That means, in essence, that they used $100 million in university money to reduce tuition for certain students, regardless of their families’ ability to pay. Since 1999, the University of Alabama has increased its share of affluent students by 13 percentage points while the share of low-income students dropped by 6 percentage points, to 11 percent of the Class of 2013. 

Related: The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast 

The average annual family income of students at the University of Alabama increased by 50 percent (to nearly $230,000) from the class that entered college in 1999 to the one that graduated in 2013, the report notes. 

The University of Wyoming gave 92 percent of its financial aid to non-needy students in 2014-15, according to the report. And the percentage of students from the top 20 percent of the income scale jumped to nearly half of the student body, from less than a third in 1999. 

There is an important caveat to the study’s conclusions. The researchers used data from the Equality of Opportunity Project’s Mobility Report Cards, which does not include nontraditional-aged students. This necessarily blunts the findings for colleges that have a significant proportion of these students – they are simply not included.  

For example, at Medgar Evers College, 42 percent of the student body is older than 25. The college had a 13 percent reduction in the percent of low-income traditional-aged students, but it may have more than balanced that out with its nontraditional student population. In addition, 60 percent of Medgar Evers students have a low enough income to receive a federal Pell grant, which hardly makes it a bastion of privilege. 

 That being said, the most selective universities tend to enroll fewer older students, so the conclusions are telling for many of them. For example, at North Dakota State and the University of Alabama, only 8 percent of students are older than 25, at the University of Arkansas it’s 10 percent and at Iowa State it’s 5 percent. 

 In addition, the changes at some colleges were fairly small. The average increase in the percent of affluent students was about 5 percentage points, and the average decrease in the share of low-income students was also 5 points. And not all of 381 selective public universities included in the study followed this trend. About a quarter of them increased their share of low-income students at the same time that they reduced the share of wealthy ones, including the University of Texas at Austin, Georgia State University and the University of Nevada. 

 The data was not broken down by race. 

 Overall, the researchers were troubled by a trend that they don’t see slowing. 

 “There is a big shift going on,” said Burd, “and I’m worried if we don’t address it now, we’re going to be paying for it for a long time in terms of social mobility in this country.” 

 This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up forour newsletter. 

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Meredith Kolodner

Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at InsideSchools.org and for The… See Archive

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