Low on Pell: WashU and the infamous 2014 New York Times article

| Managing Sports Editor

“I don’t doubt for one second that [WashU’s Pell-eligible] numbers would have improved as much if the New York Times had not blasted it as the worst in the country when it came to socioeconomic diversity,” James Murphy, deputy director of higher-education policy at Education Reform Now, said. 

In 2014, the New York Times (NYT) released an article that labeled WashU as the worst elite university in the country in terms of socioeconomic diversity, as it had the lowest percentage of Pell-eligible students. 

At the time, only 6% of undergraduates received federal Pell Grants, which typically go to students in the bottom 40% of the income distribution. In prior years, The NYT showed that WashU rejected dozens of qualified low- and middle-income students instead of giving them financial aid under the need-aware admissions system. 

Murphy thinks that exposé pieces like the NYT article are good for creating change. “Why do organizations like Education Forum Now and other organizations call attention to schools that are doing a bad job on this front?” Murphy said. “Because it’s a successful strategy to drive them to do better.”

Stephen Burd, a senior writer and editor with the Education Policy program at New America, agrees with Murphy, but believes that while calling WashU “the nation’s least economically diverse top college” played a huge role in pushing WashU to change, it wasn’t the determining factor.

“I think [the article] played a big role in at least accelerating whatever efforts that they were considering,” he said. “[But], I mean, they did hire [Holden Thorp] who wanted to call for that. Calling it the least socioeconomically diverse college in the country [helped].”

Holden Thorp, former WashU Provost between 2013 and 2019, is arguably one of the most influential players in the fight to socioeconomically diversify WashU and make need-blind admissions a reality. Before being employed at WashU, Thorp was the Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a school that was praised at the time for its work in the area of socioeconomic diversity under his leadership. 

“Holden Thorp was [a] significant player for us, because he’s sort of shared our mission,” Lauren Chase, former president of Washington University for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity (WU/FUSED), said. “He took the student activism that we were doing and used that to help the board members understand that this was important, which I think was able to help move the needle.”

The decision to hire Thorp under the Provost position, as Burd pointed out, wasn’t a decision out of the blue. While a lot of attention had been given to the 2014 NYT article, it wasn’t the first article released by the NYT calling out WashU Pell-eligible numbers.

The 2013 Times article:

“I had been [calling out WashU] for a while,” said Burd, who in 2013 wrote a long research paper for New America titled “Undermining Pell: Volume II. How Colleges’ Pursuit of Prestige and Revenue Is Hurting Low-Income Students.” 

“The NYT just has a reach and power that goes way beyond,” he said.

In the summer of 2013, the NYT released an article shining a light on the state of Pell-eligible numbers at America’s prestigious universities. The piece showed that WashU was at rock bottom.

When NYT published that first article in 2013, Thorp knew another shoe was going to drop,” former WashU student Wesley Jenkins said in his 2019 Chronicle article Washington U. Is No Longer America’s Least Economically Diverse College. Is That Good Enough?” 

“So he started putting the numbers together. By the time the second article came out a year later, Thorp was prepared,” Jenkins said.

“When [Thorp] interviewed for his job in January 2013, he told the search committee that making WashU more socioeconomically diverse should be one of the university’s top priorities,” Burd wrote in a 2015 New America article detailing WashU’s new plan to tackle socioeconomic diversity. 

That same summer, in 2013, then-Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton released a message in The Record explaining why WashU operated the way it did with socioeconomic diversity and what the school was planning to do to tackle the problem.

“Since my arrival as chancellor, we have followed a ‘need-conscious’ policy, with the specific goals of achieving quality, diversity, and affordability,” Chancellor Wrighton said “Affordability means doing everything we can to make it possible for qualified students to attend Washington University, regardless of ability to pay.”

The Road to 13%:

In January 2015, in an interview with Wrighton and Thorp, the NYT released another article on WashU titled The Least Economically Diverse Top College, Seeking to Change.” The piece was a detailed layout of WashU’s plan to expand its financial aid program. 

The plan was simple: double the share of undergraduates with Pell grants on the Danforth campus to at least 13% by 2020. 

To achieve their goal, WashU stated that it would commit about $25 million a year on top of an existing financial aid budget of $100 million and a total campus budget of $600 million. 

In 2018, to address the issues pointed out by the NYT articles, Wrighton announced that as part of the university’s ongoing fundraising campaign Leading Together: The Campaign for Washington University (a multi-year fundraising campaign and the largest in WashU history), WashU would establish the goal of raising $330 million for scholarships and fellowships to support students with financial need. 

By the conclusion of the campaign on June 30, 2018, WashU was able to raise $3.378 billion in gifts and commitments compared to its original goal of $2.2 billion. The original goal of $330 million for scholarships to improve affordability and accessibility for students with financial need was surpassed, with a final number of $591 million.

Since the infamous 2014 NYT article, WashU Pell-eligible numbers have increased from 6% to 20%. In entering the 20% range in Pell-eligible students, WashU went above and beyond its original 13% pledge — a goal that they actually reached in 2018. 

In 2019, Chancellor Andrew Martin and WashU announced the WashU Pledge, a financial aid program that provides free undergraduate education to incoming first-years from the state of Missouri and the area of southern Illinois. The pledge is awarded to incoming first-year students who are Pell-eligible or from families with annual incomes of $75,000 or less. The WashU Pledge covers the full cost of a WashU education, including tuition, room, board, and fees.

Washington University versus peer institutions on the percentage of students Pell-Eligible from 2008 to 2020 (Hussein Amuri/Student Life)

Despite the improvement in socioeconomic diversity, Murphy said that the University shouldn’t be celebrating just yet. He argues that the numbers are as good as they are largely thanks to the fact that WashU had an extremely low number of Pell-eligible students in 2013 and 2014 for a university of its size and resources. 

“The problem with talking about percent increases is that it’s always that [good] if you start really low — it’s easy to look like you’ve improved a ton because the number was so abysmal,” Murphy said. “[WashU] went from being 30th worst in the country on Pell shares in 2015 to 88th worst in the country on Pell shares in 2020.”

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