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Washington University’s plan to enroll more low-income students moves forward

Pell Grant recipients make up 11 percent of freshman class, up from 7 percent two years ago

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Higher Ed Watch

Shaun Kai Ern Ee has been pushing Washington University in St. Louis to become more socioeconomically diverse. A junior at Wash U., he is hardly alone in this pursuit. But the story of how this international student from Singapore came to care about this issue is unique.

At 18, Ee, who attended an affluent high school, was required to serve for two years in the Singaporean military, which was extremely diverse. “And that really opened my eyes personally to how having a distorted set of demographics around socioeconomic status in a school can really distort the view of those people in it,” Ee recently told me when I visited the campus. “And those people are going to be future policymakers and potential leaders, so that’s something that’s really problematic.”

When Ee arrived in St. Louis two years ago, he was alarmed to see “how upper-class” Wash U. was. He was particularly struck by a student in his freshman dorm who regularly shipped bottled water in from New York because the school no longer stocks or sells it, out of environmental concerns. “Students don’t worry a lot about spending money here,” he says with a laugh.

So Ee joined WU for Undergraduate Socio-Economic Diversity (WU/FUSED), a student group that was pressing the university to enroll more low-income students. On that front, the university’s record has been poor. In the fall of 2013, for example, Pell Grant recipients made up just 7 percent of the school’s undergraduate student body, the lowest share of any college of its caliber.

Related: Which college will replace Wash U. as the least socioeconomically diverse in the country?

But this year Ee and his colleagues in WU/FUSED scored a major victory. Tired of being labeled the least socioeconomically diverse elite college in the country by the student group and especially by national media outlets such as The New York Times, Wash U. announced in January that it planned to nearly double, by the year 2020, the percentage of Pell Grant recipients it enrolls. 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, the government’s primary source of aid for financially needy students, to 13 percent. The money will go to increasing the school’s need-based financial aid budget.

“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 announcing the plan, which he developed.

Nine months in, the university has already made progress. Pell Grant recipients make up 11 percent of the freshman class that started this fall.

Thorp, who was chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before coming to Wash U. in 2013, told me in a recent interview that the university’s experience this year shows it can enroll more low-income students without lowering its academic standards. “One thing that is incredibly important is that the tests scores for this class are identical to what they were before. The average ACT was 33 last year, and it is 33 this year,” he says. “So we are not talking about students that we have made enormous compromises to admit. These are students who have every hallmark of success.”

Related: Meet the financial-aid program that requires colleges to supplement, not supplant, federal aid

Thorp acknowledges that some of the university’s administrators—particularly in the academic and student affairs divisions—have been nervous about the plan. The university has come so far in terms of building its prestige that they worry about going backwards, he says.

Indeed, over the last several decades, Wash U. has had a remarkable transformation, from being known as a “streetcar college” to being one of the country’s most highly ranked universities. During this time, the university’s leaders sought out top-notch professors, raised academic standards and went on a building spree, constructing fancy new dormitories as well as state-of-the-art academic, research and recreational facilities. And they opened up the university’s coffers to try to attract, with generous merit scholarships, a higher-achieving and more affluent student body.

Related: Changing the incentives for colleges to enroll and graduate low-income students

By the standards that colleges use to judge their performance these days, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Today, U.S. News & World Report ranks Wash U. as the 15th best national university in the country, tied with Cornell and Vanderbilt Universities. And the school now admits only about 17 percent of the students who apply, according to the magazine.

“When a school moves this far this fast and there are people who were part of it, they are scared to death that they’re going to lose it,” says Thorp. “So what I have contributed to this is mainly just to say, ‘Look everybody, this is a great school and no one is going to take it away from you.’”

While the university’s plan represents a sea change for a school that has made little effort in the past to recruit low-income students, it’s not that ambitious. Getting to 13 percent Pell recipients will put the university in the middle of the pack of its peer institutions. At elite colleges like Amherst and Vassar, more than 20 percent of students receive Pell Grants.

Thorp hints that the university may go further. “It’s a good practice to under-promise and over-deliver,” he says with a smile.

Related: Obama administration takes big step in simplifying financial-aid application process

Ee and his friends at WU/FUSED are happy with the plan so far. Their focus now is on ensuring that the university delivers on its promises.

“In the long term, absolutely we want more low-income students,” Ee says. “But I think it’s really great that Provost Thorp has already committed us to this, and I will personally be pretty happy if this comes through. Because when I was a freshman, there seemed like no chance at all that any of this would be happening.”

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