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William College’s director of admissions, Richard Nesbitt, meets with Williams students. Credit: Kris Qua

Wealthy private colleges: Large endowments, few low-income students. It’s a rare instance of a stereotype matching available data.

Generally, despite their prosperity, rich colleges don’t give many students of lesser means a shot at an elite, private education.

But there are private institutions that buck this trend. At Williams College, a highly selective liberal arts college in rural Massachusetts, 19 percent of its roughly 2,000 students last academic year received Pell Grants — federal aid typically for students from families earning less than $40,000 a year.  And Williams reported that its most recent six-year graduation rate for Pell students was 90 percent — nearly 40 points above the national average.

Williams is rare. Nearly half of the nation’s wealthy private colleges and universities enroll so few Pell recipients that they would rank in the bottom five percent of schools enrolling such students. At many such institutions, the low-income students who do enroll graduate at far lower rates than their wealthier peers.

The Hechinger Report examined four high-flying colleges with large endowments (together totaling more than $9 billion) that have high Pell-recipient enrollment rates and high completion rates. The colleges — Denison University in central Ohio, Grinnell College in rural Iowa, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and Williams — can provide a blueprint for well-heeled institutions that currently enroll low percentages of low-income students.

“I think to [recruit and graduate low-income students at high rates] requires a very strong institutional commitment, not just from a philosophical point of view, but also from a financial point of view.”

Now may be a good time for colleges to learn from their peers. Last month former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg kicked off a “pledge drive” called the American Talent Initiative to get 270 colleges with high graduation rates to boost their Pell enrollment figures by more than 10 percent in the next decade. Congress is watching, too; last year it asked 56 elite private colleges to submit documents showing how many of their endowment dollars go toward financial aid, a sign that federal lawmakers are reconsidering whether these institutions should sit atop hundreds of billions of dollars tax-free.

The four colleges examined here reported the following:

  • Denison’s Pell student enrollment rate for the 2014-15 academic year was 19 percent; in 2016, 80 percent of its Pell students graduated after just four years on campus.
  • Nearly a quarter of Grinnell’s students now receive Pell Grants, and its within-six-years graduation rate for Pell students ranged from 75 to 85 percent over the past three years.
  • USC’s Pell enrollment rate is now 21 percent, and its most recent six-year graduation rate for Pell students is 90 percent.
  • Williams, with a student body that is 19 percent Pell recipients (22 percent of the current freshman class), also helps 90 percent of those students graduate within six years.

While they differ in size and strategies, all four colleges have Pell enrollment rates well above the average among private colleges with large endowments; all spend substantially on low-income student recruitment and financial aid; and all have high success rates in guiding their Pell students through to timely graduation.

Asked what he thought of colleges with billion-dollar endowments and paltry Pell enrollment rates, Grinnell’s dean, Michael Latham, said: “I think they have work to do. I would encourage them to think seriously about the way they understand their mission, and think seriously about the broader contributions that we can make.”

Finding the students

Recruiting academically talented low-income students is expensive, in part because institutional budgets tend to rely on students who can pay close to the sticker price of attendance. To attract more students from humble origins, colleges must consider it integral to their identity, leaders from the four colleges said.

“I think to do this requires a very strong institutional commitment, not just from a philosophical point of view, but also from a financial point of view,” said Richard Nesbitt, director of admission at Williams. “Having a strong endowment certainly helps.”

Yet for all the wealth possessed by the four schools featured here, the biggest impact comes from regular interpersonal connections with prospective low-income students, their leaders said.

Related: Are these the real heroes stepping up to get college knowledge to students who want and need it?

USC Provost Michael Quick speaking to students at East College Prep in Los Angeles, in October, 2015. Credit: Gus Ruelas

In addition to visiting high schools across the country during college fairs and information sessions, Williams spends $250,000 per year on airfare to bring high-performing, low-income high school students to campus in the fall of their senior years, said Elizabeth Creighton, deputy director of admission. The college invites 50,000 to 60,000 low-income students a year to apply for the program, called Windows on Williams. Creighton said 1,700 ultimately apply and 200 are admitted to “spend three days, all expenses paid, meeting with faculty, staying in dorms, attending classes, doing workshops focused on admission and financial aid.”

Those not invited to Windows on Williams are offered an opportunity to spend 30 minutes on the phone with admissions officers to discuss the details of the college-application process. In the spring, a similar program is offered for low-income students who’ve been admitted; the college provides grants for parents to visit, too. Last year, 170 students took up that offer, Creighton said.

Similarly, Denison administrators report spending $160,000 a year financing the trek for low-income high school students to visit the campus for two days.

Nearly half of the nation’s wealthy private colleges and universities enroll so few Pell Grant recipients that they would rank in the bottom five percent of colleges enrolling such students.

USC officials said that they don’t fly visiting students to the campus, but they send admissions officers to more than 2,000 high schools across the country — and start looking for potentially talented youngsters as early as elementary school.

“Your first touch may have to be in the third grade, because you may have to build these mentoring pipelines from very early on,” said Michael Quick, provost of USC, which has an endowment of more than $4 billion.

Like other institutions, USC uses data from the College Board’s Enrollment Planning Service — a tool that allows colleges to search for talented low-income students by region and even by high school.

“I don’t think it’s really that difficult for most of us on the college side to know where low-income students are; I think it’s the will to go out and pursue those students actively,” said Tim Brunold, USC’s dean of admission. He added that a third of the roughly 4,500 new students USC enrolls each year are transfer students, 60 percent of them from community colleges. Among USC’s community college transfers, nearly half received Pell Grants in 2015, its financial aid office said.

Grinnell offers free bus rides to its campus and other perquisites to talented low-income students from Chicago and elsewhere — before they start their college applications. “Almost half of the students … in our applicant pool were domestic students of color,” said Joe Bagnoli, Grinnell’s dean of admission and financial aid.

Bagnoli recently completed a 34-school recruiting swing through Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Among his stops was Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a high school where more than half the students receive federal school lunch subsidies.

“You don’t go to those places if what you’re trying to do is work on revenue goals,” said Bagnoli.

Colleges lacking the wherewithal to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on travel budgets or tuition discounts can partner with nonprofits like College Match in Los Angeles and Chicago Scholars that develop mentoring relationships with talented low-income students while they’re in high school.

Related: New programs use data to steer poor kids into college

Denison President Adam Weinberg speaks to the college’s students. Credit: Denison University

Colleges can also nurture home-grown talent, USC’s Quick said. “There’s going to be plenty of students right in any area where a university happens to be located that they can start forming these alliances with,” he said. “You don’t have to go all over the world to do this.”

Affording low-income students

The four colleges profiled here also reported spending significant amounts on financial aid.

  • Grinnell spends about $48 million a year on financial aid for its roughly 1,600 students, $17 million of it on low-income students. (About 13 percent of Grinnell students pay full price, according to the college; Bagnoli, citing an internal analysis of federal data, said that at the typical elite private college, close to half those enrolled pay full freight.)
  • Denison awarded more than $57.5 million in financial aid in the 2015-2016 academic year for its 2,265 undergraduates, up from about $52 million the year before.
  • USC spends more than $300 million a year on financial aid for its 19,000 undergraduates.
  • Williams commits $50 million to financial aid each year for its 2,019 undergraduates.

But financial aid alone doesn’t cover all the costs of adding more students of modest means. Were small private colleges like Denison, Grinnell and Williams to enroll even more low-income students, they’d first need to absorb other significant expenses.

“Enrolling more students, as a residential college, it’s not as simple as us pulling another chair into a classroom: We have to have a bed for everybody,” said Gregory Sneed, Denison’s first vice president for enrollment management. “It would be a substantial capital investment.”

Plus, with spaces limited, enrolling more low-income students would require displacing other students. Sneed said that Denison has an almost even split of low-, middle- and upper-income students, a type of diversity of which the college is proud.

Related: New supports for first-gen students: Helpful or just ‘a drop in the bucket’

Elizabeth Creighton, deputy director of admissions at Williams, speaking with her colleague, Sulgi Lim. Credit: Kris Qua

Similarly, Grinnell’s freshman class has as many students coming from households earning less than $55,000 as it does students coming from homes with incomes above $160,000, according to data provided by the school. Another reason to maintain the balance of middle- and high-income students is that it can help the college’s bottom line.

“We are unusual among institutions in our category, because we do offer merit aid,” said Bagnoli. Colleges that give merit aid do so in part to entice students from higher-income families who can afford a higher share of the total cost of attendance.

For Grinnell students who do take out federal loans and graduate, the typical debt is $11,000 — less than half that of the average student nationally in 2015.

Addressing low-income students’ unique needs

Once low-income students are enrolled, colleges can make certain adjustments to try to ensure their well-being — often at little cost. Two years ago, Denison conducted detailed interviews with 15 students to determine “What are the things that we don’t know about that students are encountering?” said Laurel Kennedy, the university’s vice president for student development. The school learned a lot.

“Your first touch may have to be in the third grade, because you may have to build these mentoring pipelines from very early on.”

Low-income students were frustrated about getting admonishing emails from the university for exceeding the 10-hour maximum of on-campus work per week. Kennedy called them “nasty grams.” And some low-income students complained about the lack of good options for staying on campus during Thanksgiving break. With the university closing over the long weekend to save on energy costs, “if students absolutely had to stay on campus, we would require them to move into a different residence hall that had been designated for break housing,” she said. “They could either borrow a room from a friend who lived in that hall or we would set them up to sleep in lounge spaces.”

Denison shared the survey’s results during campus meetings with students, faculty and staff. Then Kennedy’s team set out to find solutions.

The university tweaked its campus-employment policy so that students can work a total of 300 hours a year and manage their schedules weekly. If students need more hours, they can have those conversations with the right staff. Once administrators knew what to look for, “this was so simple to do,” Kennedy said.

Denison also learned that it saves very little money by shutting down for Thanksgiving break. Now, students who cannot afford to fly home during the most expensive travel days of the year can make online requests to a housing coordinator to stay on campus in their regular rooms. So that they don’t have to repeat the rigmarole, their information is saved for future requests.

The university also introduced an emergency grant called Red Thread that doles out up to $300 to help students who need eyeglasses or dental work, for example. The funds are distributed based on the students’ financial aid situation — those with higher need usually receive larger emergency grants.

And Denison provides free textbooks to low-income students (Williams does the same).

Still, enrolling the right students counts for much of a college’s success.

“I would speculate that the best predictor of graduation rate is the quality of your incoming student,” said USC’s Quick. “We supplement that with things that we can do to make sure that students even have that much more of an advantage, and can thrive.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by Williams College, an earlier version of this story reported 22 percent of Williams students had Pell grants; it is 22 percent of current first-year students, not of overall enrollment.

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