‘Still behind the curve’: WU reports significant growth in Pell Grant eligible students

| News Editor

Washington University added 429 Pell Grant eligible students between 2015-16 and 2018-19, marking the ninth-highest growth of all 128 American Talent Initiative (ATI) institutions and surpassing the University’s 2015 goal to increase the amount of undergraduate Pell-eligible students to 13% by 2020, according to a new report from the ATI.

Graphic by HN Hoffmann

After being labeled the “nation’s least economically diverse top college” by the New York Times, the University set — and ultimately met — a goal to double the share of Pell-eligible students in attendance. In pursuit of this goal, the administration created the Office for Student Success and allocated an additional $25 million to provide scholarships to low-income students.

“The University, as well as the Office of Admissions and Student Financial Services, has focused a lot of effort on expanding our recruitment pipelines, working with community based organizations, connecting with schools and under-resourced areas and trying to identify and recruit talented students who might want to consider a place like Wash. U.,” Vice Provost of Admissions & Financial Aid Ronné Patrick Turner said. “We’ve done a lot of that effort, from communication to reaching out to programming to working with school counselors.”

While the University still enrolls a lower share of Pell-eligible students than many of its peers, the ATI report praised its rapid improvement.

Student groups such as Washington University for Undergraduate Socio-Economic Diversity (WU/FUSED) have long called for the University to admit more Pell-eligible students. WU/FUSED member senior Zach Leonard acknowledged the University’s recent progress, but pointed out that some issues remain.

“It is a little bit tiring complimenting Wash. U. for this, because it is still behind the curve,” Leonard said. “And now we’re so far behind the curve on need blind that we’re the last institution in the top 25 universities by U.S. News. It seems short sighted.”

Members of WU/FUSED said they would like to see the University expand programs like the Opportunity Fund to ensure that the low income students who are admitted have the same chance at success as higher income students students. The group has also approached the University with concerns over a demographic shift that occurred as a result of the push to admit a greater share of low income students.

“The increase in Pell-eligible students who came to Wash. U. was directly tied to a decrease in middle income students who require partial financial aid,” Leonard said. “So there’s now, even more than ever, a divide on campus between low income and high income students. That’s something that we’ve been trying to address.”

Chancellor Andrew Martin’s first year of leadership has been marked by a push for increased socioeconomic diversity. Martin supervised the launch of a new start-up grant program to assist Pell-eligible freshmen with the cost of laptops, textbooks, winter clothes and other essential items as well as implementing the WashU Pledge, an initiative that will allow Pell-eligible students from Missouri and southern Illinois to attend the University for free.

During his inaugural address, Martin also announced his commitment to making the shift from need aware to need blind admissions. As it currently stands, the University is the only top 25 school in the United States that considers financial need in its admissions process.

“I know that there are a lot of folks working to secure the resources necessary to make [need blind admissions] happen,” Turner said. “We’re beginning a process of strategic planning for the University that’s underway, and I know my team and I are excited to work on that strategic planning and to figure out cost and how to implement [it]…My sense is that our chancellor is committed to making this happen as soon as he’s able to make it happen, as quickly as he can.”

However, the University has yet to publicly put forward any timeline for this shift.

“What we’ve heard from Chancellor Martin and his pushback against need blind admissions is that he wants to make sure that financial aid is met 100% before a student is actually admitted into Wash. U.,” WU/FUSED member senior Amia Cook said. “And what WU/FUSED has found through our research is that it is, in fact, possible for students to actually get 100% financial aid while also being able to get in with need blind admissions.”

Among other things, the ATI report credited the University’s improvement to an “uptick in student activism.”

Leonard agreed that student groups like WU/FUSED have played an important role in the process, adding that students have the ability to continue pushing for positive changes.

“It’s your money, and you should show the University what your priorities are as a student by participating in rallies like the WUnited rally, by coming out to WU/FUSED, by talking to your senators in SU — all of these things can have a real effect, because the University is responsive to its student body,” Leonard said.

Cook emphasized the importance of students being aware of and speaking out about ongoing issues.

“It can sometimes be difficult when you’re told ‘no’ or you’re told ‘not yet,’ but that doesn’t mean change can never happen,” Cook said. “Be persistent.”

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