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