University tops socioeconomic disparity rankings in new report
Washington University found itself in a familiar situation Wednesday, atop a new ranking measuring the least socioeconomic diverse colleges across the country.
New research from the Equality of Opportunity Project, an initiative housed at Stanford University that researches issues of economic mobility, showed the University as having the biggest discrepancy between percent of students in the top one percent ($630K+)—21.7 percent—and bottom 60 percent (<$65K)—6.1 percent, using data from the class of 2013.
The study, reported on in a story on the Upshot, a New York Times website with analysis and data visualizations, looked at measures of economic mobility, including access to college and post-graduation income levels.
This isn’t the first time the University has been criticized by the press for lagging numbers in socioeconomic diversity. Following a series of articles dating back to 2013 in which the University ranked last in average percentage of Pell grant-eligible student enrolled, a January 2015 New York Times blog post dubbed the school the “nation’s least economically diverse top college.” In late 2015, a ProPublica ranking that used data from the College Scorecard and looked at the number of Pell-eligible students at four-year, private, not-for-profit research universities placed Washington University last of 101 schools.
Since January 2015, however, the University has already made headway toward increasing diversity on campus. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education ranked Washington University first in its annual tally of black first-year students at top research universities, with 12.4 percent, and the University made a commitment in January 2015 to increase the percentage of Pell-eligible students on campus to 13 percent of the freshman class entering in 2020, a number they have already hit with the freshman class that entered this year and plan to continue.
From an academic perspective, Provost Holden Thorp said he understood why the study used older data for purposes of analysis and stability. Overall, he said, he found the research interesting.
“My one notation about the news article is that it really didn’t emphasize that these are data that, for academic purposes, were seven years old,” he said. “As far as the findings, they are an accurate representation of the things that they’re measuring from seven years ago. They’re not an accurate representation of where we are today.”
Still, senior Tia Caldwell, a member of Washington University For Undergraduate Socio-Economic Diversity, a group on campus that advocates for socioeconomic equality, said that, although she recognizes the numbers are older, they still provided a new look at the information.
“I think it does show it’s worse than I think we thought it was because we only had the Pell-eligible number before and not the whole income distribution breakdown,” she said. “The fact that we have more students in the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent is a pretty striking statistic. Although it’s not totally surprising, it’s still worse.”
Thorp added that, since it would take four years for each class to be at 13 percent Pell-eligible and since there would be another one- or two-year lag before progress shows up in articles in the press, there will be around four or five years until the University’s numbers begin to look better in these studies.
“I think the good news about that is that we have a plan to get there, and the bad news is there’s really nothing we can do to accelerate it because we have to get four classes in, and then we have to wait for all those data to get into the database,” he said. “But, we’re very excited about the progress we’re making.”
He said he believes that in four or five years he’d expect the University’s numbers to look drastically different—something that Robert Fluegge, a predoctoral research fellow at Stanford University and a researcher on the project, agreed could be the case.
Fluegge added that one of the findings from the research that surprised him was that when you look within a school, students do similarly well—in terms of income at age 30—regardless of their income background.
“Essentially, that means that you would rather know what school somebody went to than what their parents’ income was, if you wanted to try to predict what their income would be later in life,” he said. “That essentially says that once you go to a particular school, it doesn’t matter whether your parents are wealthy or not. You’re going to do, at least on average, similarly well to your classmates.”
But that only happens if students are admitted—and choose to attend—Washington University in the first place, something Vice Provost for Admissions & Financial Aid Ronne Patrick Turner has focused on during her first year at the University.
Turner talked about measures the Office of Admissions has been taking, including targeting specific students and schools, working with community based organizations and bringing college counselors to campus to learn about what the school has to offer, to expose Washington University to underrepresented minorities and to establish relationships.
She added that it was the commitment to socioeconomic diversity and underrepresented students of color that drew her to Washington University.
“This is not easy work, but a strong foundation has been laid,” Turner said. “What the team and I have to do now is work hard to build and sustain the diversity level that we’ve achieved. So, that’s my challenge, but it’s also exciting.”
Thorp pointed to the short period of time since which the University has been considered a “prestigious” university as a reason why greater efforts toward financial aid haven’t been made in the past. He said that as the school has become more prestigious, it has been able to make financial aid a priority.
“[Other colleges] are giving similar packages to the ones we are, but they’ve had an emphasis on financial aid in their fundraising for longer than we have, so it’s a simple matter of just trying to catch up. The good news is [that] as we’ve done that, it’s worked out,” he said. “Wash. U. has become a much more selective and successful university, and as a result, [we’ve] gotten to the point where people are putting a lot of attention on how we’re doing on this.”
Caldwell was not convinced by this argument but said she didn’t see harping on the past as productive.
“I think there are examples of other schools that have managed to grow in rankings and also in diversity and inclusiveness,” she said. “I don’t want to focus on criticizing them for something that’s in the past, as long as, in the future, we’re going toward the same priorities. However, I think that argument is a bit overplayed.”
Thorp said the pressure to continue increasing in socioeconomic diversity—even when the media no longer focuses on Washington University—is inherent to the changing demographic picture of the United States.
“There are so many great students who need aid who aren’t going to top schools. The pressure is already there; it’s built into the demography,” he said. “[The media is] shining a light on it because America is changing, and the people who need the benefits of higher education who aren’t getting it are people who are going to need aid.”
Caldwell was unsure that natural demographic pressures would be enough.
“We have long not represented the demographics of this country, and I’m skeptical that just saying demographic changes are going to happen is going to automatically lead to us being a better institution,” she said.
Caldwell and freshman Amaia Cook, another member of WU/FUSED, both called on the University for more transparency in communicating the socioeconomic makeup of the undergraduate population.
Cook noted that she thought it was important for the University to push to prioritize inclusivity through programs like the Student Union Opportunity Fund and Deneb STARS, started this year by new Assistant Provost of Student Success Anthony Tillman, which she is a part of.
“By not giving us any metrics and forcing us to rely on New York Times articles and tax returns from academics, they’re essentially hiding what’s really happening,” Caldwell said. “I’d love to see data likes this published all the time from them, so that students can kind of keep them honest and make sure they’re doing what they should be doing in terms of admissions and financial aid.”