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.
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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.
In comparison, more than one quarter of the students at "need-aware" Smith College, a women's college in Northhampton, Mass., receive Pell grants—a higher percentage than at "need-blind" Columbia or Amherst, both of which have larger endowments. Although Smith makes no bones about its practice of sometimes giving an admissions edge to students who can afford the schools' $50,000-plus sticker price, about 60 percent of its students receive financial aid. "Need-awareness" allows admissions officers to sometimes "put a thumb on the scale for disadvantaged students," says Smith's dean of enrollment, Audrey Smith.
In fact, colleges' announced policies about whether they discriminate against financial aid applicants appear to make very little difference in their enrollment of low-income students. On average, Pell recipients made up 14 percent of students at colleges that meet the full need of aid applicants and are "need-blind" in admissions. That's only slightly above the 12.6 percent rate of colleges that meet full need but say they reject some qualified aid applicants.
Some critics point out that colleges that insist they practice "need-blind" admissions aren't necessarily "wealth-blind." Many colleges are eager to recruit mediocre students from wealthy families who are likely to become big donors.
Peter Van Buskirk, former director of financial aid at Franklin and Marshall College of Lancaster, Pa., and author of "Winning the College Admission Game: Strategies for Parents and Students, " says the disconnect between some schools' promises not to count financial need against applicants and their actual enrollment of low-income students shows that "words are cheap. Nobody is auditing these colleges" to see what factors they really use to make admissions decisions.
Christopher Avery, a Harvard economist who has researched college admissions and aid decisions, says subtle biases can hurt low-income students' chances in admissions. Admissions officers may not count financial need against applicants, but they often prefer candidates with parents or relatives who attended the college, which ends up giving admissions edges to the wealthy. Or officers may prefer candidates who were able to participate in expensive extracurricular activities because they didn't have to work.
Sometimes the bias starts long before an application gets to the admissions office. Avery says the University of Virginia, for example, gets few applications from qualified low-income students. He says the school's reputation seems to be discouraging low-income students from even applying.
That's unfortunate, Avery says. Some studies show that qualified low-income students who apply to a mix of schools have good odds of admission, he notes.
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Officials at schools such as Amherst and Columbia say their reputations for admitting and aiding low-income students is one reason they get more low-income applicants. But Columbia President Lee Bollinger notes that his school also sends recruiters to some high schools that other elite colleges ignore.
Tom Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst, says other schools could use Amherst's techniques of broad recruitment and participation in the QuestBridge program, which matches low-income students with good grades to top schools. "It is just a matter of priorities," he says. Amherst has chosen to spend its now reduced endowment on aid rather than flashier perks such as rock climbing walls that might grab more attention. "We've been buffeted like everybody else by the economy. … But should we use our unbelievable endowment to make successful and privileged kids even more successful and privileged? That doesn't seem like the right use of the money."
Monica Inzer, dean of admissions and financial aid at Hamilton, says that she and her staffers are delighted that they won't have to reject needy but excellent students any more. But she can't promise that the change will significantly raise the percentage of students from very low-income families. She is confident, however, that the change will result in more opportunities and aid for middle-class families. "We'll be able to admit really hardworking students from working-class families," she says.
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