America’s most prestigious public universities are decreasing representation of low-income students and spending more institutional aid on students from wealther families

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As more low-income and minority students turn to college, many top public universities are turning away from them

Publication date: 
January 12 2010

WASHINGTON (January 13, 2010) – Right now, Congress is working to pass legislation that would increase the amount of federal financial aid awarded to low-income students to help them attend college. But efforts on Capitol Hill to make college more affordable are being undermined by a very different set of priorities at some of our nation’s most prestigious public universities.

     According to “Opportunity Adrift,” published today by The Education Trust, public research-extensive universities distribute hundreds of millions of their own precious financial aid dollars to affluent students who have no financial need whatsoever, while providing inadequate support to needy students who depend on it. As college costs skyrocket and a degree becomes more essential to compete in the job market, the total amount of institutional grant aid spent on students whose parents earn at least $115,000 per year grew from $282.5 million in 2003 to $361.4 million in 2007, an increase of 28 percent.

     Such an increase might not be so troubling if the needs of lower income students were fully met first. But the typical low-income student at these institutions is left with an “unmet” financial need equivalent to about 70 percent of his or her family’s annual income. It’s no surprise, then, that students in both the entering and graduating classes at our leading public universities are looking less and less like the state populations these institutions were founded to serve.

     "Too many flagship institutions are literally turning their backs on academically qualified low-income and minority students in favor of the children of the elite," said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. "In some states, the top-ranked private university is now more diverse than the public flagship. It’s almost as if some of America’s best public colleges have forgotten that they are, in fact, public."

     As a follow-up to “Engines of Inequality,” an unprecedented 2006 study of access and success at our country’s 50 public flagship universities—typically the oldest, largest, and most prestigious in each state—“Opportunity Adrift” reveals how the choices such institutions make erect barriers to college enrollment and completion for low-income students and students of color. Many of these institutions have boldly asserted their commitment to such students and announced grandly named initiatives aimed at fostering access and success. Yet the representation of minority students in the flagships’ entering classes—compared with the high school graduating classes in their respective states—increased only slightly in recent years, and the relative representation of low-income students actually declined.

     The report includes ratings of all 50 flagships on access for low-income and underrepresented minority students, on the relative success of students from those groups in earning a degree, and on the changes in these figures over time. In the overall ratings, some flagships stand out from their peer institutions. For example:

  • Four institutions—the University of Florida, the University of Maine, the University of Utah, and West Virginia University—won the highest marks for both their current overall performance on measures of equity and fortheir progress between 2004-05 and 2007-08.
  • Indiana University Bloomington and the University of Michigan received the lowest overall marks for performance and progress.
  • The highest overall performer currently is the University of Maine; the lowest are the University of Georgia and the University of Mississippi.
  • The biggest overall improver in recent years is West Virginia University, while the University of Wyoming and the University of Vermont fell backward the furthest.

     Some flagships were standouts on individual measures. For example:

  • The University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the University of California–Berkeley, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the University of Montana perform better than most other flagships at enrolling low-income students, compared with other colleges and universities in their respective states.
  • While the racial diversity of Florida’s high school graduates has increased since 2004, diversity in the University of Florida student body increased even faster, making the flagship one of the standouts for improvements in minority-student access.
  • The State University of New York at Buffalo and the University of Oregon each narrowed their graduation-rate gaps between white and minority students by more than 10 points over the same time period, ensuring that more of their students earn a degree.

     “Clearly, some schools take seriously their charge to combine excellence and equity for the full range of students in their states. Others may have discrete programs but are more focused on improving their position in the U.S. News rankings,” said Jennifer Engle, assistant director of higher education at The Education Trust. “Given the critical role flagships play in preparing a state’s future business, civic, and political leaders, they must be willing to compete as aggressively for high-achieving low-income and minority students as they do for rankings, running backs, or research grants.”

     The good news is that after nearly a decade of diminishing financial assistance for their most economically disadvantaged students, flagship and other research-extensive public universities increased their financial aid allocations to those in the lowest quartile of family income from 2004 to 2007.

     However, in a departure from what common sense and common decency would suggest, these institutions are still spending almost the exact same amount of money overall on grant aid to students whose parents earn more than $80,000 per year as they are on students with an annual family income of less than $54,000. These institutional choices, combined with the diminished purchasing power of federal Pell Grants, make it even more difficult for needy students to afford tuition.

     “Thirty years ago, the federal Pell Grant covered most of the cost to attend a four-year college. Now, it’s only about one-third,” said Mary Lynch, the Ed Trust research analyst who conducted the analyses in this report. “Not surprisingly, smaller proportions of low-income students enroll in four-year colleges today than a generation ago.”

     As a result of these choices, the undergraduate student populations of most flagships are less reflective of the states they were established to serve. For example:

  • Though minority students comprise about 38 percent of South Carolina’s high school graduates, they represent just 11 percent of the 2007 freshman class at the University of South Carolina.
  • Nearly 39 percent of the students attending colleges and universities in Michigan receive Pell Grants, but only 13 percent of those enrolled at the University of Michigan receive such grants.

     Many believe that K-12 preparation is the primary culprit behind these numbers—that low-income and minority students simply don’t qualify for entry. Certainly, at least in part because of large differences in school and teacher quality, there are proportionately fewer high achievers among low-income students than there are among students from more well-to-do families. But research consistently shows that among students eligible for entry into highly selective schools, more than half of those from low-income families either don’t go to college at all or attend institutions that they could have entered even if they hadn’t cracked a book in high school, severely compromising their chances of eventually earning a degree.

     The result? “In study after study,” said Haycock, “our highest achieving poor kids seem to be earning degrees at rates below our lowest achieving rich kids. This is an enormous waste of talent that our country cannot afford.”

     The leaders of flagship universities face enormous competing pressures, especially with federal and state budgets under siege. But even as the budgets of flagships and other public research universities are slashed, these institutions are still among the wealthiest of all higher education institutions.

     “These institutions receive more generous public subsidies than other colleges,” said Haycock. “They provide more aid to their undergraduates than any other funding source, and they have the power to spend that aid differently. As some institutions in this study have shown, they can be as good at competing for and graduating low-income and minority students as they are at so many other things— when they want to. The question is, ‘When will more of them do so?’”

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