For years, Washington University in St. Louis has held the dubious distinction of being the least socioeconomically diverse college in the country.
That’s about to change.
In January, the university announced a plan to double the proportion of Pell Grant recipients that it enrolls by 2020. Under the plan, Wash U. will spend at least $25 million a year for five years to increase the share of students receiving Pell Grants, federal grants that go to students from families making less than $60,000 annually, to 13 percent.
“Improving the socioeconomic diversity of our student body is not just important; it’s critical to our success as a university,” Holden Thorp, the university’s provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said in a news release.
Wash U.’s decision comes at a time when there is increasing attention from higher-education researchers, the news media, and even the White House about how well selective colleges are serving low-income students. In a period of growing inequality, many are concerned that colleges, in their pursuit of prestige and revenue, are increasingly catering to the rich and leaving the most financially needy students behind.
With those concerns in mind, I decided to determine which college is in danger of replacing Wash U. as the nation’s least socioeconomically diverse campus. Judging by data available from the U.S. Department of Education, there are six colleges in the running—Colorado College, Elon University in North Carolina, Kenyon College in Ohio, Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, Washington and Lee University in Virginia, and Whitman College in the state of Washington.
At these six colleges, no more than 10 percent of students received Pell Grants, which go to students from families making less than $60,000 per year, in 2012-13, the latest year for which federal data are available. Two of the colleges had under 10 percent—Muhlenberg at eight percent and Elon at nine percent.
The leaders of most of these liberal-arts institutions said in interviews they are trying to increase the share of low-income students they enroll. (The president of Washington and Lee declined to be interviewed for this column.)
“It’s clear to us that we can do better than where we are and where we’ve been in recent years,” says Sean Decatur, president of Kenyon College.
The one exception is Muhlenberg College, which says it has no intention of following Wash U.’s lead. “Just trying to increase the number of Pell Grant recipients might be good for PR but may be bad policy for our college,” says Randy Helm, the outgoing president of Muhlenberg.
To be fair, Washington University’s endowment dwarfs Muhlenberg’s—Wash U.’s endowment per student is nearly half a million dollars, whereas Muhlenberg’s is only $50,000. In other words, Muhlenberg can’t just decide on a dime to spend an additional $25 million in aid each year.
But this isn’t just a question of money. Helm, who is retiring in June, doesn’t think it would be healthy for Muhlenberg to make a concerted effort to recruit and finance substantially more Pell-eligible applicants. If it did, it would have to spend its entire $36 million financial aid budget supporting them, and wouldn’t have any aid left for middle-income students who are also struggling to pay the school’s $55,000 annual cost of attendance.
“We’re not going to be a school that serves the very, very rich and the very, very poor,” he says. “I don’t think that would be fair to middle-income students, the college, or the country.”
There may be, however, another reason that Muhlenberg is wary of substantially increasing its pool of Pell Grant recipients. The college devotes a significant share of its institutional aid to the pursuit of high-achieving students, who often come from well-to-do families.
A page on Muhlenberg’s website, entitled “The Real Deal on Financial Aid,” acknowledges that the college and many of its competitors often use institutional aid as a “recruiting tool.”
“It used to be that you could try for that reach school and if you got in, you didn’t have to worry because everybody who got in, who needed money, got money,” the college’s financial aid office states. “Today, however, as colleges are asked to fund more and more of their own operation with less and less assistance from government, foundations, and families, they are increasingly reluctant to part with their money to enroll students who don’t raise their academic profile.”
Muhlenberg provides “merit aid”—which is not based on financial need—to about 32 percent of its freshmen, with an average award of nearly $12,500 per student, according to data the college reports to magazines that publish college rankings.
In contrast to Muhlenberg, leaders of the other four institutions I interviewed say they are taking steps to enroll more low-income students.
The school that seems most likely to break out from the pack is Colorado College, which is making “a real effort” to become more socioeconomically diverse, according to Jill Tiefenthaler, the college’s president. Over the last several years, the college has raised $10 million, which the Walton Family Foundation is matching, to increase the amount of aid it can provide to first-generation college students with significant financial need.
Colorado College has also partnered with QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization that acts as a matchmaker between elite colleges and historically underrepresented students. “We are really diversifying the pool of highly qualified low-income students that we enroll,” Tiefenthaler says.
Kenyon College hasn’t gone quite as far as Colorado. But the school has seen “steady upticks” in the number of low-income and first-generation college students it admits, according to Decatur.
As part of its effort to become more diverse, Kenyon simplified its admissions application, removing extra essays that it had required students to write. The school found that the application’s length discouraged first-generation students from applying.
Decatur thinks that this change, which occurred before he came to Kenyon in 2013, has paid off. “We’ve seen increases in the socioeconomic diversity of our application pool,” he says.
For next year’s incoming class, Kenyon admitted 408 minority students, up 9 percent from last year, and 128 first-generation college students, the second most the college has admitted in the last decade.
On the West Coast, Whitman College has struggled in recent years with its socioeconomic diversity. During the financial crisis of 2007-08, the college’s endowment took a beating. In reaction, the institution significantly reduced its spending on need-based financial aid, and, as a result, the percentage of Pell Grant recipients on campus plunged.
George Bridges, Whitman’s president, says the college is now making a concerted effort to reverse those cuts and attract many more low-income students. This June, the college will complete a capital campaign that is expected to raise $50 million for endowed scholarships, many of which will go to first-generation students.
“We have a responsibility to increase access wherever we can,” says Bridges, who is leaving Whitman at the end of the school year to become president of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
Meanwhile, Elon University* is in the middle of a 10-year campaign to double the amount of need-based institutional aid that it awards. “Elon must not become a gated community open only to those of privilege,” the college states on its website, “and our classrooms and campus life will be much richer when we recruit more students from diverse backgrounds who challenge and lead us by sharing their own life stories…”
President Leo Lambert believes that Elon, which has the smallest endowment of the six colleges, is making “slow progress” in increasing the proportion of Pell students it enrolls. “We are digging hard into this issue of access, because it makes a big difference in the quality of the kind of community we aspire to be,” he says.
It’s clear that none of these colleges is likely to come close to doubling the share of Pell Grant recipients they enroll, as Wash U. hopes to do. But with the exception of Muhlenberg, all of the college presidents who agreed to be interviewed are taking steps to avoid having their institutions become the least socioeconomically diverse in the country over the long run.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Elon University.