Too Few Low-Income College Students?

Article excerpt

The road to a college education in America is paved with good grades and hard work. But it also takes money and knowing how to navigate a complex admissions route - two factors that have contributed to poor students' underrepresentation on many campuses.

About 50 percent of low-income students enroll in college right after high school, compared with 80 percent of high-income students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That's a gap of 30 percentage points, a gap that over the past 30 years has fluctuated between 22 and 49 points.

For low-income students with high achievement levels, the college attendance rate is higher - about 77 percent - but that's about the same rate as high-income students with much lower achievement scores, according the College Board, a nonprofit association in New York that tracks and promotes college attendance.

As competition intensifies in the global marketplace - and as the numbers of people in developing countries who complete college is quickly increasing - pressure is mounting in the US to remove barriers to higher education and develop the pool of talent represented by low-income students.

"Higher education used to be one of the ways to get to the American middle class.... [Now] it's the only way," because of the loss of low-skill, high-wage jobs, says Thomas Mortenson, an Iowa- based senior scholar with the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington. "That places a very different set of responsibilities on higher education. If in fact they're going to play a socially constructive, economically constructive ... role, they have to diversify their enrollments."

He and other advocates for low-income students take many of the top-ranked public and private universities to task for the small percentages of low-income students they enroll. At the University of Virginia, for instance, about 7 percent of students in 2006 received federal Pell Grants, a common proxy that researchers use for low- income status. At Yale, it was about 8 percent.

By comparison, some top-ranked schools such as the University of California, Berkeley, and Smith College in Northampton, Mass., have at least a quarter of their student bodies receiving Pell Grants. (See www.economicdiversity.org, run by the Project on Student Debt.)

Amherst College, a top-ranked college in central Massachusetts, is one example of a school that welcomes pressure to do better. With an endowment valued at nearly $1.7 billion, "it's morally incumbent upon us to do everything in our power to make [this kind of] education possible for as broad a range as we can," says Amherst dean of admissions Tom Parker.

About 12 percent of students at Amherst received Pell Grants in 2006, and about 20 percent overall are low-income, if the count includes those who are similarly eligible for grants through other channels, Mr. Parker says.

Amherst makes sure the financial-aid packages it offers cover students' need through government and Amherst grants and campus jobs. The college used to include loans in its aid packages, but nearly a decade ago, it stopped asking students to take out loans if their families earned under $60,000; it gave them more grants instead. Last year, it expanded the no-loan policy to everyone on financial aid, meaning many middle-class students can also graduate debt-free.

Dozens of colleges made similar announcements in the past year. …