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Dozens of ‘elites’ urged to add Pell Grant students

A small change in admissions could make a big difference to low-income learners
University Business, July 2017
MAY THE FORCE BE WITH THEM—Graduates of USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative—a rigorous college-prep program for students from low-income communities near campus—got a ceremonial visit from actor Mark Hamill,  of Luke Skywalker and Star Wars fame, and some of his fictional antagonists.
MAY THE FORCE BE WITH THEM—Graduates of USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative—a rigorous college-prep program for students from low-income communities near campus—got a ceremonial visit from actor Mark Hamill, of Luke Skywalker and Star Wars fame, and some of his fictional antagonists.

A small change in admissions at many of the most selective colleges and universities could make a big difference to low-income learners.

To meet a goal of having all schools enroll at least 20 percent Pell Grant recipients, about 350 “elite” institutions would have to admit about 20,000 low-income students, says a new report from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce.

“A lot of has been given to the wealthiest colleges in terms of property tax breaks, endowments that accumulate without being taxed, participation in federal student loans and research funding,” says Martin Van Der Werf, a co-author of the report and the center’s associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy.

“We think that builds a public responsibility at these places to pay back across society.”

The report spotlighted these institutions because they often provide the wide range of support services—such as mentoring and more comprehensive advising—that less-prepared but academically qualified students need to succeed in college.

Institutions that enroll large numbers of these students don’t always have the capacity to offer intensive academic assistance, Van Der Werf says.

Highly competitive colleges should be able to afford the shift. The report found the budget surplus at the 69 most selective institutions averages $139 million annually.

The report’s 20 percent figure comes from two places: A bipartisan Senate bill proposes fining schools, via federal financial aid, that don’t enroll a certain number of Pell students. Early estimates indicate that threshold would be around 20 percent.

Also, about 39 percent of all undergraduates receive Pell Grants; the center believes 20 percent—about half that rate—is a fair and attainable goal for elite institutions.

That benchmark was achieved long ago by the University of Southern California, one of the country’s most selective, private institutions. Around 22 percent to 24 percent of its students receive Pell Grants, says Thomas McWhorter, USC’s dean of financial aid.

The work starts with USC recruiters, who visit some 2,100 high schools annually.“It’s a combination of extensive recruiting and finding the brightest students everywhere we can find them, regardless of their socioeconomic status,” McWhorter says. “It’s also about having good pipeline programs.”

One those programs, the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, focuses on middle and high schools students from the impoverished communities near campus. Students and their families begin preparing for college in sixth grade.

Starting in high school, the students attend college-oriented math and English classes on campus each morning before heading to their regular high schools. They must also participate with their parents in a Saturday academy that covers topics around supporting college students academically, financially and emotionally.

USC guarantees full scholarships to students who complete the program.

The university has articulation agreements with many area community colleges. More than 40 percent of USC transfer students receive Pell Grants. Simply enrolling Pell Grant students, of course, is not the end goal. “When they get to USC,” McWhorter says, “these students are all graduating at the same rates as others.”

Highly selective colleges that enroll more than 20 percent Pell Grant recipients: 

University of California, Los Angeles- 35.9%

University of California, Berkeley- 31.4%

Vassar College- 23.3%

Ohio State University-Columbus 22.4%

Smith College- 22.2%

Amherst College- 21.9%

New York University- 21.5%

Columbia University- 21.4%

University of Missouri-Columbia 21.4%

Emory University- 21.3%

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill- 21.3%

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

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