Elite universities can afford to admit a much larger amount of low-income Pell Grant recipients without significantly hurting their graduation rates or budgets, according to a report released by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on May 2.
The report, authored by CEW Director Anthony Carnevale and Martin Van Der Werf, CEW associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy, finds that 69 percent of the most selective private colleges ran average annual budget surpluses of $139 million over the last four years, but fewer than 20 percent of undergraduate students they admitted were Pell Grant recipients.
The report also finds that many Pell Grant recipients are statistically qualified to attend top-tier universities, scoring at or above the median mark on standardized tests of students at selective colleges.
“Highly-qualified Pell Grant students are being turned away from the opportunity for an elite college education, which is more and more open only to the wealthy,” Carnevale said in the May 2 press release.
According to Van Der Werf, he and Carnevale both believe that admitting a class with at least 20 percent receiving Pell Grants is a fair and reachable goal for all colleges and universities. Most selective U.S. colleges fall significantly short of this goal. Overall, more than 72,000 additional Pell-receiving students would have to be admitted to 346 colleges and universities to meet that standard, according to the report.
About 13 percent of all Georgetown students were Pell Grant recipients in the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, according to a U.S. News and World Report analysis. To reach 20 percent Pell students, Georgetown would need 536 more students receiving Pell Grants.
“Competitive pressures keep elite colleges from admitting low-income students even when they are qualified,” Van Der Werf wrote in an email to The Hoya. “If the colleges themselves won’t change their admissions policies, it’s worth considering whether we should require a minimum enrollment standard of 20 percent Pell Grant recipients.”
Recent attempts have been made to increase low-income representation in elite universities. Bipartisan federal legislation proposed in September 2016 by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) would require colleges with the lowest ratio of Pell Grant recipients to admit more low-income students. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, but never came to a vote.
Van Der Werf said such a federal bill has the potential to bring Pell-receiving student enrollment to about 20 percent in selective U.S. colleges.
Increasing the amount of low-income students at selective colleges and universities would allow for increased access to better academic resources, higher graduation rates and greater post-graduation earning potential, as well as increased equality across the socio-economic spectrum, according to Van Der Wertf.
“If selective colleges enrolled more Pell Grant recipients, a high-quality postsecondary education would be spread across a broader group of students, instead of preserving elite educations for students who, for the most part, are already elite,” Van Der Werf wrote.
Van Der Werf said he recognizes a major barrier to reaching the 20 percent solution. With mandated 20 percent Pell Grant enrollment, elite colleges would have to accept a substantially different group of students than they would otherwise select, choosing lower-scoring Pell students over slightly higher-scoring others. However, he said this obstacle can be overcome.
“Some of the finest universities in America enroll more than 20 percent Pell Grant students, including Columbia, Emory, [New York University], [University of Southern California], Amherst, Smith, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” Van Der Werf wrote. “If these universities have figured out a way to make this work, other elite universities can do so, too.”