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“It was a magical moment”: Students reflect on the state of socio-economic diversity at WashU

| Staff Writer

A student strolls in front of Brookings on a winter day. (Tyler Hanson Mathur | Student Life)

A decade ago, the Washington University campus was shocked when  a New York Times article reported that it was the least socio-economically diverse elite institution in the United States. Sitting at just 6% , WashU had the worst Pell-Eligible percentage of students who received federal Pell Grants, which typically go to students in the bottom 40% of the income distribution.

Fast-forwarding to the present, however, WashU has been able to turn things around and cement themselves as one of the leading institutions in the country when it comes to higher education accessibility and investment.

Through ambitious fundraising projects, student activism committed to socioeconomic diversity, and more, WashU has raised the percentage of Pell-eligible students from 6% in 2015 to 20% in 2023, according to Chancellor Andrew Martin’s most recent State of the University Address

The University has joined over 100 institutions and adopted a  need-blind admission program, adopted a no-loan policy that will go into effect in fall 2024, and redoubled its “efforts to engage, support, and build pathways for students from small-town and rural America” through its Heartland Initiative

Furthermore, the University implemented several programs, such as the Kessler Scholars program and the Chancellor Career Fellows program, that aim to support first-generation, low-income students through academic success, career development, and other milestones.

These changes are a big deal, especially when the University hopes to improve its current #24 placement in the US News ranking in light of the recent change in methodology that favors socio-economic diversity and social mobility. They are an even bigger deal to the students who have come to benefit from them. 

Sophomore Da’Juantay Wynter is majoring in American Culture Studies & Education and a member of the Ervin Scholar Program. Wynter is also a member of the class of 2026, the first-ever class in WashU history to be admitted through need-blind admission.

“It is great to know that my socioeconomic status, something I had no control over, isn’t going to affect the life that I can build for myself,” he said. “Knowing that I was considered just for my abilities and skills that I built throughout my life, instead of something that I couldn’t control, has allowed me to fulfill my dream of attending college.” 

Junior Zaira Rodriguez hails from a small town in Colorado and studies Political Science and Latin American Studies. She’s a member of the Annika Rodriguez Scholars Program. Coming from a Mexican immigrant family, Rodriguez chose WashU for many reasons: one of which was the University’s strong financial support for students like her.

“When I was applying to school, my parents were like, ‘we will literally pay for everything, pick any college that you want,’” she said. “But coming from an immigrant family, I didn’t want my parents, who were working hard enough already [to do that]. Thankfully I got accepted into the Rodriguez Scholars program, which was the leading factor [in me attending WashU].”

Due to the program’s enrollment of individuals from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and the fact that WashU had historically recruited from the top of the socio-economic ladder, Rodriguez has found a community and family in the Rodriguez Scholar community. 

“When I applied to WashU, I was overwhelmed,” she said. “Being a private university, WashU sounded very intimidating, especially being a first-generation, low-income student. I didn’t feel like I belonged in a private school. It just seemed very high-class. And yet, I ended up being fine. I ended up finding a great community, and I thank the Rodriguez [program].”

Rodriguez is not the only one feeling grateful. Junior and Biomedical Engineering major Cristian Gomez thought WashU was out of reach as he “was honestly thinking, I would go to community college in Miami, and that was, like, the best thing I could possibly manage.”

Gomez is a first-generation student, which meant his parents’ inexperience in the college application process was an obstacle to overcome. Furthermore, having been in the U.S. for only a few years, Gomez faced the hurdle of familiarizing himself with American higher education culture.

“My parents didn’t go to university,” he said. “Eight years before [applying],  I was living in Bolivia, so I had the faintest hope to go into a school in the States. I didn’t know how to apply because my parents couldn’t help me. They never applied. The best thing I could do was ask around high school teachers.”

Despite the hurdles he encountered, Gomez decided to apply to WashU largely due to the University’s strong financial support and rigorous STEM programs. 

“I remember when the decision came out, I was in Bolivia, at my parents’ house,” said Gomez. “My parents and sister were so happy for me. It was a magical moment. They were really proud. Their child going off to college, it had a nice feel to it.”

Navigating college admissions in first-generation, low-income households is a struggle many WashU students can relate to, and one that Rodriguez knows all too well.

“The college process was a little stressful, but thankfully I had a lot of support from mentors, teachers, and counselors,” she said. “But when there were things like FAFSA, I remember filling out the paperwork was so stressful. I was like, ‘Dad, I need these papers.’ And he was like, ‘Why do you need these papers?’ ‘Because it’s the FAFSA.’ And he’s like, ‘What is FAFSA?’”

A decade ago, prior to the University’s recent changes, students recalled experiencing imposter syndrome and feeling like being a first-generation, low-income student at a university with some of the wealthiest students in the country was taboo. They felt that people didn’t understand or weren’t conscious of their struggles. 

According to current students like junior Jahselyn Medina, this is not the WashU she knows now. Through programs such as the Taylor Family Center, the University has invested many resources to support Pell-eligible students on campus and ensure they feel like they belong, thanks to courageous student activists and first-generation, low-income students who shared their stories.

“I think, from freshman year to junior year, there has definitely been a pretty prominent shift in terms of the environment and attitudes towards first-generation students,” Medina said. “During my first year… a lot of my friends that weren’t Taylor Family STARS Scholars and they didn’t really know about the program. But now anytime I mention it, they are like, ‘Oh yeah, I know the Taylor Family STARS.’ They’re more conscious and aware of what the program is for and the students that it supports.”

According to Medina, you can only talk about this shift in attitude towards socio economic attitude on campus if you talk about some of the critical initiatives the University has implemented. 

Specifically, the Taylor Family Center received a donation offer that has allowed it to create a welcoming atmosphere and sense of belonging for Pell-eligible students. As an academic mentor for Taylor Family Center, Medina has seen the impact of this donation firsthand.

“The culture has definitely changed a lot, especially with having received the Taylor STARS donation,” she said. “It’s been able to open up so many more avenues for us to expand our program and make our program more prominent to others in the entire university.”

It’s not just about changing the conversation around socioeconomic diversity. The success and power of a program like the Taylor Family Center has come from its ability to assist first-generation, low-income students with their day-to-day needs. In the past, Pell-eligible students at WashU faced difficulties acquiring money for important resources, like books and winter coats. 

“I think the Student Success program in Taylor STARS has been something that a lot of people, including myself, have benefited from, because there are just a bunch of other college expenses beyond tuition [that people have to pay],” said Medina. “What about a winter coat when it’s negative degrees? Winter coats can be very expensive or things that we don’t really like to think of, but are still necessary. They may not be in our tuition breakdown, but they are still important to how we navigate college.”

In 2023, WashU was ranked #1 by The Princeton Review for having the best financial aid package in the country. These improvements have earned the University praise from experts in higher education admission who have been critical of WashU and elite institutions in the past.

“There has been a clear change in priority, which is 100% about leadership,” James Murphy, the deputy director of higher education policy at Education Reform Now, said. “One thing that becomes clear every single year is that what really matters is who’s in charge of the University, by which I mean both the [Chancellor] and the Board of Trustees. So [the improvement] shows a definite change in WashU mission, and they should be proud of that.”

But while Murphy “owes 100% applause” to the improvement WashU has been able to make, he believes that the University shouldn’t just stop at what it has done thus far. Specifically, Murphy believes WashU should abolish legacy admission, a practice that gives priority to offspring of WashU alumni.

“There’s no reason to think that once an institution has gotten better that they won’t get worse,” he said. “It’s WashU’s obligation to get rid of legacy preferences, 100%. We know from that Opportunity Insights paper that came out this summer that the vast majority of people who benefit from a legacy preference are white and rich. Legacy preferences are completely opposed to both social mobility and racial diversity.”

Murphy doesn’t want to end at changing just legacy admission. He believes the University should also “look at Early Decision [as] another aspect to consider in its admissions process.” While he doesn’t believe that “Early Decision in itself has to be harmful to both racial and socioeconomic diversity,” he does believe Early Decision numbers are worth examining.

“Students who are most likely to apply early to a college are students who go to independent private schools and international students, right?” he said. “What do those students typically have in common? They’re not Pell-eligible students. White students are much more [likely] to apply through early decision early.”

Murphy also pointed to the term “first-generation” and its boundaries. “A lot of colleges like to talk about how many first-gen students they admit,” he said. “But how many students are first-gen and low-income? Because a lot of first-gen students are students whose parents went to college overseas.”

Many colleges and universities only count accredited degrees earned from US institutions in their assessment of who is first-generation. 

“Let’s give [WashU] a pat on the back for improving Pell percentages, but let’s also point the finger at the shamefulness of not having gotten rid of these practices that so obviously are not going to help,” he concluded.

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

The fight for Pell coalitions: The role of WU/FUSED, the Board of Trustees, the administration, and student leaders in improving WashU’s socioeconomic diversity

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

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