Students who can't afford college got heartening news when Hamilton College announced recently that it would become the 46th college to pledge not to discriminate against aid applicants in admissions and to provide all students with enough grants to afford college without big loans. Officials at the Clinton, N.Y., school say that picking only the best students without considering their finances, and providing sufficient aid, will likely require the school to give away $500,000 more in freshmen grants next year. Hamilton, which had an endowment of about $490 million last year says it is now trying to raise extra funds to pay for the additional scholarships.
But an analysis comparing colleges' admissions and aid policies with the number of low income students they actually enroll raises questions about the effectiveness—and, some critics charge, the sincerity—of some colleges' pledges to be "need-blind" in admissions and to "meet needs" with lots of scholarships.
Of course, some of these schools are providing remarkable educational opportunities for many disadvantaged students. Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C., which serves women undergraduates and is one of the least selective colleges in the group, says that nearly half of its students received federal Pell grants in 2007-08. The federal government awards Pell grants only to the 25 percent or so of undergraduates with the lowest family incomes, typically below about $45,000 a year. Some of the most highly selective colleges in the group, such as Amherst College and Columbia University, also have comparatively high percentages of Pell grant recipients—at least 17 percent. And some schools, such as Pomona College in Claremont, CA, say their Pell grant numbers are misleadingly low because they award such big scholarships that the federal government sometimes no longer considers students needy enough to qualify for Pells.
But some schools that claim to be both meritocratic and generous enroll very few low-income students. Just 7 percent of the student body at Davidson College in North Carolina, for example, got Pell grants in 2007-08. Likewise, the University of Virginia, one of the few public universities that has made the pledge, reported that only 8 percent of its students had low incomes.
Officials at those schools say that they are trying to increase the economic diversity of their student bodies and increase opportunities for lower-income students. For example, David R. Gelinas, Davidson's senior associate dean of admission and financial aid, said his school replaced all the loans in its standard aid package with grants so that students can graduate without a penny in debt. That's helped Davidson raise the percentage of low-income students above 9 percent this year. The University of Virginia also promises to provide enough scholarships so low-income students don't have to borrow. Yvonne Hubbard, the university's director of student financial services, also argued that the percentage of Pell grant recipients doesn't fairly reflect her school's economic diversity, since the school also serves many students from working- and middle-class families who need aid to afford Virginia's $21,000-per-year total cost of attendance but don't qualify for Pell grants.
Even these schools' recent higher Pell rates pale in comparison with numbers boasted by many schools that would seem to be less friendly to low-income students because they regularly reject qualified students on the basis of financial need.
[Related story: Will an Aid Application Hurt Admissions Odds? ]
Most public and private colleges admit students regardless of their need for aid, but they typically don't provide all students with all the aid they need to attend. Nineteen private colleges promise to meet the needs of all admitted students but keep their scholarship budgets in check by rejecting or wait-listing borderline students who ask for aid.
Not surprisingly, some schools with "need-aware" admissions policies end up enrolling very few low-income students. Only 7 percent of students at Washington University in St. Louis and Colby College in Waterville, Maine, for example, qualified for Pell grants in 2007-08. Officials at many of these schools say they need to collect more revenue from tuition because their endowments are comparatively small. But Washington University in St. Louis, for example, was reported to have the nation's 16th biggest college endowment last year, with over $4 billion in reserve as of June 30, 2009. Colby, with about $450 million in its endowment, can afford to provide scholarships to only 40 percent of its students, says Lucia Whittelsey, director of financial aid. But Colby seeks a diverse student body, so admissions officers "sometimes give an edge to students who have no extracurricular activities in school because they must work to help support their families," she says.