Vassar College’s Thompson Library. Vassar leads the list of the country’s top schools that are making an effort to admit low-income students.

Are Top Colleges Really Opening Their Doors to Low-Income Students?


A September 8 article posted by the New York Times discusses how a number of top colleges have said they would recruit a more economically diverse student body, but many have not followed through.

As the author of the New York Times piece, David Leonhardt, points out the education gap is a problem for the entire country’s economy.

“The economic differences between college graduates and everyone else have reached record levels. Yet for many low-income children—even many who get A’s in high school and do well on the SAT—college remains out of reach,” he writes.

Check out the College Access Index, created by The Upshot, to see which colleges are trying to attract low-income and middle class students.

Vassar, a once all-female college in Poughkeepsie, New York, tops the index with about 23 percent of freshman in recent years receiving Pell grants, which means they come from the bottom 40 percent of income distribution, Leonhardt says. That number is up from 12 percent in 2008.

Leonhardt points out that a number of wealthy colleges—which is measured by endowment per student—are doing far less than places like Vassar.

Take, for example, Washington University in St. Louis, which climbed to No. 14 in the U.S. News rankings last year. Only 6 percent of the freshman class in recent years have received Pell grants, but the school is one of the country’s 25 wealthiest.

But what happens when schools give scholarships and endowments to low-income students?

“Talented, low-income kids are out there, and talented middle-income kids are out there,” Catherine Bond Hill, an economist who called attention to the lack of economic diversity in colleges, told the New York Times. “But the problem for schools is when you admit one of those kids, you forgo $50,000 a year that you could use for other things.”

How about the wealthiest school in the country? Where does Harvard stand in all this? Harvard is sixth on the College Access Index with 17 percent of recent freshmen receiving Pell grants. That number is up from 13 percent in 2008.

The index points out that Harvard’s endowment per student is just over $1.5 million. And according to a September 9 New York Magazine article, the university recently got even richer. On September 8, Harvard received its largest give ever, $350 million.

According to the author, Annie Lowrey, Harvard is spending a billion dollars upgrading its coeds’ riverfront housing. She points out that if the university wanted to maximize its worth, “it could, say admit more students, especially poor ones, reduce its focus on property development, and double down on its focus on research, which currently makes up $800 million of its $4.2 billion in annual operating expenses.”

Some have suggested taking away Harvard’s tax-exempt status to encourage the university to do just that, “or at least to ensure that it is also contributing more to the public good,” Lowrey writes.

If colleges with far fewer resources, like Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which has an endowment of $120,000 per student, can more than double the number of low-income freshman—from 7 percent to 17 percent over the last 6 years—at their schools, why can’t wealthier ones?

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page