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Far more low-income students are qualified to attend the nation’s most selective colleges and universities than they enroll, despite the fact that most have budget surpluses they could use to subsidize the neediest applicants, a new study contends.

Most low-income students end up at community colleges and regional public universities with low graduation rates. But some 86,000 annually score on standardized admission tests as well as or better than the students who enroll at the most selective universities and colleges, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce says.

The study contradicts the idea that low-income students aren’t qualified for top schools.

Top universities with high budget surpluses and low enrollment of low-income students. Credit: Source: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce

In fact, said Anthony Carnevale, the report’s lead author and director of the Georgetown center, enrollment in the best schools is often more likely to be based on family income.

Elite college educations are “more and more open only to the wealthy,” Carnevale said.

Seventy-eight percent of low-income students who do manage to get into those selective colleges and universities eventually graduate, compared to 48 percent who go to community colleges and other open-access institutions.

The 69 most selective private colleges had average annual budget surpluses of $139 million from 2012 to 2015

Nor do top private colleges appear unable to afford to help low-income students. Most posted budget surpluses between 2012 and 2015, the last year for which the information is available, the study finds, citing federal tax documents.

The 69 most selective private colleges had average annual budget surpluses of $139 million in that period, and their endowments have a media value of $1.2 billion, it says. (These surpluses include donations to endowments and for other purposes, the authors acknowledged.) Yet fewer than one in five of their students are low income.

Some colleges and universities have particularly low proportions of low-income students. At Washington University in St. Louis, for example, fewer than 7 percent of students are eligible for Pell Grants; at Muhlenberg, fewer than 8 percent; and at Washington and Lee, Kenyon, Elon, and Colorado College, fewer than 10 percent.

Nor is it only private colleges where these rates are low. Fewer than 13 percent of students at the University of Virginia have incomes low enough to qualify for Pell Grants.

A bipartisan proposal in Congress would charge a penalty to colleges that take the lowest proportion of low-income students, measured by whether they qualify for federal Pell Grants.

The Georgetown center’s findings echo those of a report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which in 2015 compared the percentage of low-income students who could have been expected to enroll at some of the top public universities based on their academic qualifications, versus the number who ended up at them.

It found that, without changing their admission standards, most of those schools also could take more low-income students.

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