School’s new Pell plan part of bigger push
Administrators outline methods of measuring socioeconomic diversity
Washington University likes to advertise its top ranks. It consistently leads national lists of the best college food and housing, and it has been a consistent presence in the top 20 of the U.S. News & World Report’s yearly list of best colleges. But in recent years, the University has also been placed atop a set of less celebrated rankings.
A New York Times blog post in January 2015 called Washington University “the nation’s least economically diverse top college.” The title was awarded at the culmination of a series of articles dating back to 2013, in which the University ranked last in the average percentage of Pell Grant-eligible students it enrolled. Other publications have gotten in on the fun, too: Data journalism site ProPublica, for instance, ranked the school last out of 101 four-year, private, not-for-profit research universities.
The Federal Pell Grant Program is not the only measure of socioeconomic diversity at a college or university, but it’s one of the most prominent. Formed in 1965, Pell is a government program that grants money to low-income undergraduates. The maximum Pell Grant for 2015-16, which can vary from year to year, is $5,775.
Pell Grants are the federal government’s largest source of grant aid for students, Ben Miller, the senior director for postsecondary education at the think tank Center for American Progress, said.
The Pell program “recognizes that, unlike middle-income students who might be able to afford it but need some help with debt, there are some people who are so low-income that they really need money that does not have to be paid back or they won’t be able to go to college,” Miller added.
In January 2015, Washington University leadership announced a plan to increase the percentage of Pell-eligible students on campus to 13 percent of the freshman class entering in 2020, an increase from the single digits it has occupied for years. This year’s freshman class counted 11.5 percent of its members as Pell-eligible students, already nearly doubling the number from just two years ago.
But while a Pell increase is central to the University’s plan for the next five years, administrators say that the percentage of Pell-eligible students is not by itself an effective means to measure socioeconomic diversity.
Not every socioeconomic measure places Washington University at the bottom of its list. In the ProPublica data, for instance, the University ranked well on two other measures: discount on total cost, where it ranked ninth out of 100 schools, and graduation rate for Pell-eligible students, where it ranked 13th of 79.
These other measures beyond simple Pell enrollment numbers are also important, Provost Holden Thorp said, because they measure low-income students’ success after they matriculate.
“There’s a cynical way to do this, which is to admit a lot of low-income students and not worry about whether they graduate and how much debt they have, and we didn’t do it that way,” Thorp said.
That’s a message that University leaders have been expressing for years as negative press mounted, and it’s a nuance that’s finding its way into the broader discussion of socioeconomic diversity in higher education.
That same New York Times index that measures economic diversity at top colleges recently changed its formula to more heavily factor in graduation rate and price of tuition.
“We think that’s a good change. Not just because we come out better in the story,” he said with a laugh, “but because it really is a more true picture of what we’re trying to do with educational access and opportunity.”
Miller noted that some policy advocates think that colleges receiving any federal funding should have to meet a minimum percentage of Pell Grant recipients. His problem with that argument, though, is that Pell students need to be well-served at their colleges of choice.
“I think if given the choice between enrolling a ton of low-income students and giving them unaffordable debt and enrolling fewer and giving them minimal to no debt, it’s a tough call,” Miller said. “I would probably lean towards it’s better to keep debt down.”
But Washington University’s prestige complicates that consideration, Miller added.
“Wash. U.’s not just like any other college. People who graduate from there will probably do fine, and so maybe having debt is actually better in that case like because you’re likely to graduate and be OK,” he said.
Despite University administrators’ efforts to explain the school’s low Pell numbers, they have still made increasing those numbers a recent priority, and they’re emboldened by the progress they’ve made so far.
“The commitment was to get to just having the first-year class have 13 percent, but depending on when we reach that point, we may have achieved that in a greater fraction of the student body,” Thorp said. “We like to beat expectations.”
Jumping to 13 percent, however, would only move Wash. U’s ranking up to 91st place on ProPublica’s list.
“I think we should be setting our own goals with respect to what we want to do,” Chancellor Mark Wrighton said when asked if he is worried that by the time Washington University reaches 13 percent, other schools will have pulled farther ahead. “The aspiration, at least, that I have is that in our student body we reflect the face of America, and the United States population is shifting and so we’re going to have to be changing the makeup of the student body.”
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Given the timing of the new initiative, it’s easy to credit the negative national attention with influencing the University’s change in course.
That isn’t necessarily a problem, according to some student activists.
Members of Washington University for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity (WU/FUSED), the leading campus organization pushing for increased socioeconomic diversity on campus, said they are pleased that the University is making progress regardless of the reasoning behind it.
“We just want to change to happen,” WU/FUSED member and sophomore Gideon Oyekanmi said. “Any reason is a good reason, right?”
Fellow WU/FUSED member and junior Shaun Ee agreed.
“As long as the nature of those means isn’t interfering dramatically with that end you’re trying to accomplish, bad press is really just another tool,” he said. “Give us more bad press—bad press is exactly what we want, because that helps us effect change.”
Campus leaders, however, credited the media with a different role, saying that the increase in attention on Pell numbers specifically is a result of the recent influx of quantitative journalism and a desire to simplify complex problems.
“It’s only recently that people have said, well, socioeconomic diversity is going to be measured by the fraction of Pell Grant-eligible students you have,” Wrighton said.
“When I first got into this business, we didn’t have Vox and The Upshot and FiveThirtyEight making tables of every single piece of data they can find in the world and writing news stories about it,” Thorp added. “I don’t think anybody thought readers would be interested in that stuff. But…now it’s very fashionable to write these kinds of stories.”
Beyond the bad media attention, people on campus also attributed the arrival of Thorp on campus as influencing the administration’s active focus on this issue.
Ashley Gilkey, who works with low-income and first-generation students as part of the TRIO program, said she thinks the school’s leadership has more explicitly recognized the need for increased socioeconomic diversity on campus.
“I think with Provost Thorp coming on board, that was a big agenda on his platform that he wanted to see happen, and I think he did just that,” she said.
More tangibly, Wrighton and Thorp said the new Pell plan is the result of recent fundraising successes.
In the past, Wrighton explained, “We’ve had less financial support to be able to admit students who come from low-income families.”
Because it pledges to meet all expressed student need, the school must be able to commit upwards of $55,000 to each Pell-eligible student each year, Wrighton said. But through the ongoing Leading Together campaign, he aims to raise $400 million for scholarships and fellowships by 2018, partly to help meet this need.
Those funds can help explain the jump in Pell-eligible students this year and last, Thorp said. Student Financial Services gave out $98.7 million this year in scholarship and grant spending, compared to $59 million in the 2007-08 school year. In the past year alone, funding for financial aid has increased by over $8 million.
Some need-based funds are also being reallocated from the University’s merit scholarships. This year, the school ended its National Merit Scholarship program so that money can be used instead for need-based aid.
Around 6 percent of all aid annually comes for merit scholarships, but that number is unlikely to change, Thorp said, because most are named scholarships.
“I think that a lot of our peers have named scholarship programs that they’re not going to get rid of,” he said, citing Duke University as an example. “There’s probably not too many people that are at zero merit aid, so 6 percent is a pretty good number.”
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But while raising the money to support more Pell-eligible students, the University must be able to find these students, an area its leaders admit has been problematic in the past.
“There are a lot of low-income students who are not going to the best university that they can get into, and most of that is because we haven’t done a good job of letting them know that they can get in,” Thorp said. “And so I think it’s really important that we do that so that people understand the opportunity that they could get by coming to a place like this.”
Wrighton added that Washington University has difficulty recruiting students due to its Midwestern location, lack of name recognition and high sticker price and that the school hasn’t been able to communicate effectively about what it can provide in way of financial support.
The newest effort to remedy this problem comes courtesy of the College Advising Corps, a national program that launched a partnership with Washington University in August. The program places recent college graduates in local underserved high schools and helps students through the college application process. Washington University’s participation currently consists of advisers working in five St. Louis-area high schools.
“Students and families need additional support,” Angela Brooks, the director of the College Advising Corps at Washington University, said. “We have so many people in the St. Louis area and in other areas where there has not been a single family member who has gone to college, and it is a daunting process and it is something where it does require someone to help you, especially if it’s your first time.”
While many of those students won’t end up coming to Washington University, Thorp noted, having these programs is important when considering college access.
“Of course we want to do a lot to find students for ourselves, but we also owe it to America to help increase the rates of college-going at all schools,” Thorp said. “I think our commitment to the College Advising Corps is a commitment to that idea.”
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Junior Natasha Ceballos, one of Washington University’s Pell Grant recipients and a first-generation college student, said that financial aid played the only factor when it came to choosing a school to attend. So even when she was accepted to her dream school—which wasn’t Washington University—she came to the Danforth Campus thanks to its superior financial aid package.
She’s happy here, she said, and would not have had the opportunity to pursue her second major—Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology, a WU-specific program—elsewhere, but she still acknowledges that financial aid was the sole factor in her matriculation decision.
“A lot of people talk about city, or location or all of these things, but…it all 100 percent boiled down to financial aid,” Ceballos said.
Ceballos will graduate with no debt after college.
“I think Wash. U. as an institution does a really good job of making sure kids get to this point, right?” Ceballos said. “Because they only accept kids if they know they can afford to give them the financial aid for the kids to come here, which is great. But I think that there’s a disconnect between getting us to thrive here because I feel myself hitting walls sometimes with student groups or just activities and things like that.”
Ceballos said she understands that the school can’t give her nearly a full ride and not expect her to work and pay for some of her own incidentals like rent and food, so she works at an off-campus job 20-25 hours a week—hours she doesn’t get to spend sleeping or doing homework.
She said her freshman year was difficult because she could not keep up financially with the culture of bonding that seemed to always include spending money.
“I had to drop out of this friend group and spent the rest of freshman year alone, essentially, and that was hard, but I just didn’t let it get to me. It will get to some people,” she said. “I’ve just found a way to make Wash. U. work for me. It was by no means easy, and I was miserable; if we had this interview two years ago, it would be a very different story.”
Director of Student Financial Services (SFS) Michael Runiewicz said that SFS tries to help students cover other expenses apart from their financial assistance award—but it can be restricted.
“We talk to students a lot, and we suggest when students are struggling with money they come in and talk to us. We help students to the extent that we really are able under federal guidelines,” Runiewicz said.
In these instances, Runiewicz said he encourages students to meet with their SFS counselor, who might be able to find different resources. One department-specific program, he offered as an example, provides lab coats for students.
“One of the challenges is that students don’t know where to go. If there were a person on campus that knew all of those different resources, he or she would be my best friend,” Runiewicz said. “We’ll contact people on a student’s behalf if we know of a resource, but sometimes we only find out about resources because a student mentions it to us—that’s how we found out about the lab coats, for example.”
Another support system for low-income students is the TRIO program, a national effort from which Washington University receives the Student Support Services grant, which focuses on undergraduate students. The program came to the University in 1971 and currently supports 200 undergraduates. In order to be eligible for TRIO, students must be first-generation or low-income college students or have a disability.
TRIO provides academic assistance in a range of ways, from providing mentors to offering priority for work-study positions, among others, program counselor Gilkey said. On a more social side, the program gives students tickets for cultural enrichment opportunities such as Diwali and Black Anthology.
“I think that it’s important to have just supplemental assistance to ensure that every student has a well-rounded, full and fulfilling experience at this institution,” Gilkey said.
TRIO at Wash. U. recently renewed its grant for the next five years, bringing in another $1.71 million total for 2015-20. However, this is only enough to support 200 students, which is just a fraction of the total number of TRIO-eligible students on campus.
Gilkey stressed the importance of developing an inclusive campus environment because focusing on numbers can yield exclusivity through the use of labels. Just because a student comes from a lower-income background, she said, “doesn’t mean that they’re less capable, less able, to thrive here at this institution.”
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From an outside perspective, Ben Miller said that the benefits to the University becoming more socioeconomically diverse wouldn’t outweigh the objective costs, noting the resulting increases in financial aid and recruitment costs.
“None of the ranking systems give you credit for your socioeconomic diversity. It’s not going to help you in U.S. News; it’s a values call,” he said. “It’s really just a question of do you see one of your roles as a college to be really providing people economic opportunity.”
But, Miller added, a school’s diversity can be linked to the values it projects.
“At a certain point, the percentage of low-income students at an elite college is a reflection of that school’s values,” Miller said. “The colleges ahead of Wash. U. have made a slightly less pathetic effort to enroll low-income students.”
However, Wrighton and Thorp stressed that the complexity of the question of socioeconomic diversity on campus suggests that the University’s recent efforts may not be as pathetic as they seem to outside observers.
That’s something they’ll recognize as they “start peeling the layers of the onion on this story, because they’re saying we’re actually doing a great job at providing packages to our students and graduating them,” Thorp said.
“The feedback we have…is that people who come here have a great experience,” Wrighton said. “In some ways, people would suggest we should make more rapid progress, but we’ve been reluctant to spend money we don’t have.”
And both Wrighton and Thorp said that building prestige and socioeconomic diversity are not mutually exclusive. As the Pell percentages increased in this year’s freshman class and last, Thorp said, “We didn’t see any other metrics related to our students go down.”
From the student perspective, advocates for increased diversity are changing their goals in accordance with the University’s shift. Whereas WU/FUSED was previously focused on pushing the administration to see the lack of socioeconomic diversity as an issue on campus, they are now shifting to ensuring that low-income students feel supported once they get here.
While group member Shawn Ee recognizes and understands the argument that Washington University’s prestige is relatively new, he still believes that Pell Grant percentages can be useful as a comparison tool. He also questioned how long being a “new university” can be used as an excuse.
Ee expressed concerns about what will happen after Wash. U. increases Pell Grant percentages and is no longer receiving the same levels of negative media attention.
“When the press is no longer as bad, and we’re not number 50 out of 50, how much pressure is that going to create on the administration?” he said. “The question then becomes how can you make sure that this commitment is one that’s lasting? And I think that one is one I do not necessarily have an answer to as much as I wish I did.”