Pell news should not be taken for granted, but concerns remain

A week ago, Washington University announced a new plan to address its lack of socioeconomic diversity. The University plans on increasing its ratio of Pell-eligible students to 13 percent by 2020 and devoting $25 million annually to achieve this goal.

While the administration dragged its feet for many years coming up with a plan, it is encouraging to see the University making strides to improve this glaring blemish on its record. This marks the first time Wash. U. has set concrete goals, and it comes after The New York Times in consecutive summers publicly took the University to task for standing out among elite universities for its dearth of low-income students.

At the undergraduate tuition panel hosted by Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and WU for Undergraduate Socio-Economic Diversity in the fall, administrators shared that the University has in recent years consciously used its budget to improve the school’s reputation and construct facilities rather than help increase socioeconomic diversity on campus. From the announcement of this plan to bring in more Pell-eligible undergraduates, it seems that the University is seriously considering a much-hoped-for shift in financial focus.

Concerns about how the plan will work and affect the student population still need to be accounted for—literally. In October, Provost Holden Thorp stated that $25 million each year was too high a figure to devote toward scholarships for Pell-eligible students, but since announcing the plan, he has stated that “additional aid money” would be sufficient for the grant. For now, the University has not filled in much of the blank on how it will generate this “additional aid money,” with Thorp merely stating that it would use additional fundraising and redistributed merit aid as key sources.

Hopefully, as much as of the $25 million figure as possible will come from new sources and not cut into the current budget. The University has touted its ability to support the full cost of education for students it does admit, and that focus should not change just because a higher commitment to financial aid is now needed.

The plan also fails to acknowledge the impact such a shift will have on the undergraduate student population. Currently, many low-income students may feel reluctant to disclose that they cannot go out to dinner as regularly as their higher-income peers, engage in other activities requiring discretionary income or sometimes even purchase textbooks.

While the University cannot necessarily expand its financial aid to include these areas, by increasing the number of Pell-eligible students, it will foster an environment where it is more commonplace for students to voice that they cannot go out to the Delmar Loop or other off-campus locations regularly. It will create a campus of increased financial empathy and understanding.

Furthermore, the University must recognize that its commitment to the increase in percentage of Pell-eligible students is part of a continued process. The 13-percent figure will merely make the University average in terms of socioeconomic diversity compared to fellow elite schools, and every year up to, until and after 2020 should involve a re-evaluation of how we can do better.

One area where Wash. U. still sticks out is its need-aware admissions policy, which allows for de facto discrimination on the basis of family income. There are several areas still with room for improvement, and perhaps the admissions policy is the next target.

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