“Access Ain’t Inclusion”: Increasing Socioeconomic Diversity at WashU

| Managing Sports Editor

Courtesy of Elle Su

This article is part of “The Fight for Pell: The History of Socioeconomic Diversity at WashU,” a Student Life series that documents the long struggle for increased awareness and support for Pell-eligible students. Read the letter from the author here

“Access Ain’t Inclusion.” This is a phrase popularized by Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack, an Assistant Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in his book “Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students.” 

The phrase argues that while it’s one thing to enroll more students eligible for federal Pell grants, it’s an entirely different matter to have the infrastructure ready to support them. 

“[Chancellor Wrighton and Provost Holden Thorp] recognized that it was not going to be enough just to bring more students from Pell-eligible backgrounds into the University. We had to also make sure that they had a quality undergraduate experience,” said Dr. Harvey Fields, former WashU Associate Dean for Student Success. 

“There are these theories about if you have a gradual increase, how do you adapt and adjust to that? But if you have a more rapid increase, you need to make sure you will have thought intentionally about what that looks like,” he said.

In its mission to build a more socioeconomically diverse student body, WashU faced two problems: a lack of Pell-eligible students and support programs for once they arrived on campus. 

In response to the New York Times article that named WashU as the least economically diverse top institution, WashU’s goal was to have a 13% Pell-eligible population by 2020. But as a university that rose to such status largely through admitting the wealthiest of students, the culture wasn’t fit to welcome a large number of low-income students.

As part of the University’s goal to increase socioeconomic diversity in 2015, Thorp and Wrighton tasked an advisory group with identifying barriers to student success and recommending strategies to tackle those barriers. The group was chaired by Dr. Fields. 

This advisory group was known as the “Increasing Socioeconomic Diversity at Washington University in St. Louis Report.” Aside from Dr. Fields as the chair, the advisory group included people like John A. Berg, then Vice Chancellor for Admissions; LaTanya Buck Jones, then Director of the Center for Diversity & Inclusion; Robyn S. Hadley, Associate Vice Chancellor for Students and Dean of the John B. Ervin Scholars Program; Jennifer R. Smith, then Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and Rob Wild, Dean of Students.

Increasing Socioeconomic Diversity at Washington University in St. Louis Report:

Dr. Fields’ process was composed of three main steps. First, to meet with the members of the advisory group on the subject of number diversity; second, to talk with students and find out what the students were thinking about some of these issues; and third, to write “a report that summarized what I had learned, and to come up with some recommendations about the directions and the structures that we should go in,” Dr. Fields said.

But Fields noted, he was asked to not give specific recommendations in the report itself, as per the instructions from Provost Thorp, but rather, to give the University “the kind of guideline that people could refer 20 years from when it was written.” 

While gathering information, Fields and his advisory group learned some of the issues Pell-eligible students were experiencing ranged from “declining financial aid packages to demeaning comments and behavior from students, faculty, and administrators.” 

The aforementioned points of frustration were brought to attention through anonymous Facebook posts WU/FUSED received from WashU undergraduates during the 2014-2015 academic year. WU/FUSED received over fifty comments, which were divided into five main concerns: financial aid and tuition, social and extracurricular activities, campus climate, housing and food, and reflection.

Dubbed the “WashU Socioeconomic Secrets,” two students wrote to WU/FUSED saying, “a friend of mine almost had to leave WashU because he almost lost his aid. It was hard for him to talk about it because most of his friends were not on financial aid” and “my friend bought a $6,000 necklace — I sold $500 meal points to buy winter clothes.”

One other student wrote, “being from a family that couldn’t support me like my peers did affect my academic/collegiate experience irreparably. Due to my financial situation, I couldn’t join Greek Life, I couldn’t eat out with my friends, and I couldn’t take advantage of all the social opportunities I wanted to. Now, I have a much smaller community than I would have preferred.”

Other students wrote, “when shopping with friends, I felt out of place because they could freely spend money on whatever they wanted with their parent’s credit cards, but I had to pay for clothes by myself, watching how much I could spend,” and “listening to people on my floor bond over vacations to Europe during Bear Beginnings while I spent the summer babysitting my nephew.”

But again, the Socioeconomic Secrets were not limited to low-income students, they were open to everyone,  including WashU students who came from affluent families.

One student wrote, “I am in the 1% and quite frankly there’s a real stigma about it that makes me feel uncomfortable and embarrassed,” and another wrote “my parents hired someone to consult me on my college application essays. I feel like admission to WashU can be bought.”

So in combination with focus groups, group meetings, peer-institutions research, and WU/FUSED anonymous posts, the report identified several major areas that affect and contribute to the quality of the undergraduate experience. These include academic transition, food service, social interactions, summer school, residential life, and even study abroad to name a few.

Following the identification of these areas was the recommendation portion of the report. 

“One of my recommendations in the report was that we needed to have a structure that would support the efforts that we were not undergoing, and it needed to be a structure that first of all, would be institutionalized,” said Dr. Fields. “It needs to be something that would be existing in perpetuity, and it had to have a leader that was at a high enough level of organization when they realize institutions are not only saying we’re gonna do this, they’re making a significant investment.”

Out of the report, several groundbreaking initiatives were born. One of those programs was the Office of Student Success alongside the Deneb STARS program, or as it is now known the Taylor Family Center for Student Success. The Taylor Family Center program was founded in 2016 by Dr. Anthony Tillman and Dr. Fields as part of the Office of Students of Success and as a cohort program that provides community support to low-income students. 

But you cannot talk about The Taylor Family Center without talking about Scotty Jacobs, a WashU alumni who served as an Undergraduate Student Representative to the Board of Trustees. This was the position that he and his colleague Shyam Akula would use to argue for the case of The Taylor Family Center. All of their work was part of the bigger “Increasing Socioeconomic Diversity at Washington University in St. Louis Report” conversation.

“At the time, it was considered a taboo for students to talk about their socio-economic status to other students,” Jacobs said. “Now, it’s a totally different climate where WashU students are comfortable wearing shirts that identify with Denebs or the Taylor Family Center.” 

To make their case for the Taylor Family Center, Jacobs and Akula would write a long report titled “Honoring Our Investment: Low-Income Student Success at Washington University in St. Louis” that got published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Initially, the report focused on determining how the University could use supplementary funding to support more students than Washington University’s TRIO Grant could support on its own. But the two broaden their scope.

As part of the Office of Student Success, the Student Success Fund was also created. This is a fund designed to remove financial barriers or strains related to low-income students’ successful progression to and through their university experience. To this day, students can apply to the fund if they require financial assistance and it is administered by the Taylor Family Center. 

Three years later, WashU would expand its support of low-income students by announcing new start-up grants known as the “First-Year Start-Up Grant and the Technology Grant”. 

“So that was a key piece of the report above the existing University infrastructure,” Dr. Fields said. “What we were looking for is, what things can we do now that will make a difference or plant a seed for what can happen in the future?”

The First Year grant is worth $1,500, with $500 meant for bookstore credit. The First Year Technology grant is worth $1,150 and is meant to help First-Year students purchase a laptop computer that meets current undergraduate minimum requirements. Every incoming WashU first-year student who is Pell-eligible, or whose household earns less than $75,000 in annual family income, is eligible. The grant program costs WashU $1 million annually.

“I had to write the report and I reviewed it with the Advisory of Social Economic diversity and then after that, I had it presented to [Provost Thorp] and he had to accept it,” Dr. Fields said. “Fundamentally, he had to accept the report. And then once he accepted the report, then we published [it] and he actually put it on the provost website as a way of signaling to the community… the legitimacy not only of the report, but the legitimacy of what the institution was now committed to doing.”

Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 10/05/2023 to adequately reflect sensitive material. 

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.

Subscribe