Public Relations Masks the Real College-Access Crisis: The Wealthiest Universities Enroll the Smallest Percentage of Low-Income Students-This Has to Change

By Sullivan, Daniel F. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, May 29, 2008 | Go to article overview

Public Relations Masks the Real College-Access Crisis: The Wealthiest Universities Enroll the Smallest Percentage of Low-Income Students-This Has to Change


Sullivan, Daniel F., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Recent decisions by wealthy private colleges and universities to drop merit aid and eliminate student loan debt masks the fact that these institutions enroll the smallest percentages of low-income students, and that the real national crisis of access to higher education by students from low- and moderate-income families is likely to be made worse, not better, if other colleges and universities follow.

I hope these moves do result in these institutions enrolling more low-income students. But the hype surrounding the announcements makes it harder for the public and our elected officials to understand the underlying structure of subsidies that exist in American higher education. Blame is being put on colleges and universities for what are really deep and profound failures of public policy in America that are keeping us--the wealthiest nation in the world--from enabling millions of able but low-income students to attend and complete college. This has to change.

Ending merit aid and student loans at a small number of institutions will not change the fact that nationally, high-achieving students from low-income families still have no more chance of graduating from college than do low-achievers from high-income families.

In their recent book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, Dr. William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil and Dr. Eugene M. Tobin point out that the wealthiest colleges and universities-those that can best afford the financial aid necessary to enroll large numbers of low-income students--in fact enroll the smallest percentages of such students.

In their attempt to maintain the highest possible competitive position, these institutions seek to maximize the average test scores of their incoming students. Test scores are highly correlated with family income--the higher the family income, the higher the test scores. Because only students with high test scores apply to these institutions, low-income students are underrepresented in their applicant pools.

At St. Lawrence University, we provide merit aid to about a third of our students--three quarters of whom also receive need-based aid--and our students graduate with a relatively high average debt load. Overall, we award scholarships to over 75 percent of our students, and 20 percent of our students receive federal Pell Grants, which go to students from the lowest quartile of family incomes in America, about double the percentage at a typical wealthy institution. …

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