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Harvard is better at admitting low-income students than the University of Wisconsin

Jens Schlueter

Top colleges in the United States have been struggling with economic diversity for at least a decade. And the problem appears to be getting worse.

new report from the New America Foundation finds that many colleges offer generous merit scholarships to students with good grades or test scores, while charging relatively high prices to the students from low-income families. This practice originated at private colleges, but is now spreading to public universities too.

Meanwhile, students who get Pell Grants, who come overwhelmingly from families making less than $60,000 per year, are generally underrepresented at elite colleges and universities. Nationally, they make up 36 percent of all college students; at the most prestigious colleges, they're often less than 20 percent of enrollment.

Worrying about whether colleges are doing enough for poor students often focuses on private colleges. The New York Times recently ranked 101 "top colleges" — 98 of them private — based on their economic diversity. The New America report takes private colleges in particular to task for spending their aid budgets on the wealthy rather than the needy.

But the most prestigious public universities, too, could be doing a lot more for social mobility — and they should. Not only do they have a mission to serve the people of their state, they can work at a scale that small private colleges simply can't match.

Elite public universities are elite in every sense of the word

Low-income students are nearly as underrepresented at Penn State as they are at Stanford. They make up a larger proportion of the student body at Grinnell College, a private liberal arts college in Iowa, than at the University of Iowa itself. Vassar College enrolls almost double the proportion of students on Pell Grants (23 percent) as the University of Virginia (12 percent). The numbers are hardly better at the University of Michigan (16 percent) and the University of Wisconsin (15 percent).

The underrepresentation of low-income students should be particularly troubling at public universities for two reasons. First, while the admissions process is still competitive, many public universities accept a higher proportion of their applicants than the most elite private colleges. Yale accepted 6 percent of its applicants last year; Wisconsin accepted more than half.

Second, big public universities have the advantage of sheer numbers. Low-income students make up a proportionally larger share of the student body at Vassar than at UVA, but UVA still enrolls three times as many low-income students. They're just outnumbered by even more students from wealthier families.

In other words, if the 98 private colleges the New York Times ranked decided to increase the proportion of students with Pell Grants to 30 percent, those 98 colleges would together graduate about 14,800 more low-income students per year than they do now.

The 32 public members of the Association of American Universities, the most prestigious research universities in the US, could graduate 16,000 more per year with a similar pledge.

This argument shouldn't let private colleges off the hook. Making their enrollment look a little more like the economic makeup of America would benefit everyone, not just low-income students. But if what we're concerned about is helping students themselves rise to the middle class, making Yale accept the same proportion of low-income students as Vassar won't be enough.

If you want make big changes, you have to go where the students actually are. Broadening the focus from small elite private colleges to large elite public universities still captures only a sliver of American higher education, but it's at least a much bigger sliver.

pell grant aau chart

Note: chart refers to flagship campuses when not specified (Boulder for Colorado, Ann Arbor for Michigan, etc.).

California shows that this is possible

Research shows that elite colleges, whether they're public or private, aren't tapping into all of the academic talent out there. An influential paper from two economists, Carolyn Hoxby and Sarah Turner, found that the vast majority of high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds don't apply to any selective colleges at all. That suggests that better outreach, coupled with financial aid policies based on students' financial need rather than their test scores, could make a significant difference in the proportion of low-income students colleges enroll.

There is also evidence that colleges can both serve an economically diverse swath of students and maintain their selectivity and prestige. The University of California system's nine campuses are an unparalleled engine of social mobility — and many also rank among the best universities in the United States.

Five of the top 10 spots on the US News and World Report list of the best public universities in the US belong to University of California campuses. (A sixth, the University of California at Irvine, is 11th.) Two campuses, Berkeley and UCLA, are the most selective public universities in the United States. They accept a smaller proportion of their applicants than Vassar. At both campuses, about one-third of students receive Pell Grants; elsewhere in the system, the percentage is even higher.

The University of California system has suffered from state budget cuts in recent years that have led to sharp tuition increases. And Pell Grant recipients are somewhat less likely to graduate in the University of California system, a troubling gap in graduation rates that doesn't always exist at the most elite private colleges.

But the overwhelming force of the system's numbers should carry the day. Vassar's efforts to make its student body more economically diverse are impressive, but UC campuses work at a scale that a small liberal arts college just can't match. No other prestigious universities in the United States enroll so many students from low-income families. Few even come close.

This isn't a miracle; it's the result of deliberate choices. California has its own grant for low-income students, which provides more than $13,000 per year in support for students at University of California campuses. The university makes its own financial aid promise to cover whatever is left for students from families making up to $80,000 per year; the state just established financial aid for families making up to $120,000 per year.

So university admissions and financial aid offices at both public and private colleges can — and should — do more on their own. But California-sized change could require California-sized policy action, too. And it's easier to rail about colleges' exclusivity than it is to build a structure to help public universities advance economic opportunity.