Too few low-income college students?

Pressure mounts on colleges to reduce barriers for that pool of talent.

Ann Hermes
Mentor: Ashley Armato worked as a mentor as a student at Amherst College, explaining admissions and financial-aid options to high school students.

The road to a college education in America is paved with good grades and hard work. But it also takes money and knowing how to navigate a complex admissions route – two factors that have contributed to poor students' underrepresentation on many campuses.

About 50 percent of low-income students enroll in college right after high school, compared with 80 percent of high-income students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That's a gap of 30 percentage points, a gap that over the past 30 years has fluctuated between 22 and 49 points.

For low-income students with high achievement levels, the college attendance rate is higher – about 77 percent – but that's about the same rate as high-income students with much lower achievement scores, according the College Board, a nonprofit association in New York that tracks and promotes college attendance.

As competition intensifies in the global marketplace – and as the numbers of people in developing countries who complete college is quickly increasing – pressure is mounting in the US to remove barriers to higher education and develop the pool of talent represented by low-income students.

"Higher education used to be one of the ways to get to the American middle class.... [Now] it's the only way," because of the loss of low-skill, high-wage jobs, says Thomas Mortenson, an Iowa-based senior scholar with the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington. "That places a very different set of responsibilities on higher education. If in fact they're going to play a socially constructive, economically constructive ... role, they have to diversify their enrollments."

He and other advocates for low-income students take many of the top-ranked public and private universities to task for the small percentages of low-income students they enroll. At the University of Virginia, for instance, about 7 percent of students in 2006 received federal Pell Grants, a common proxy that researchers use for low-income status. At Yale, it was about 8 percent.

By comparison, some top-ranked schools such as the University of California, Berkeley, and Smith College in Northampton, Mass., have at least a quarter of their student bodies receiving Pell Grants. (See, run by the Project on Student Debt.)

Amherst College, a top-ranked college in central Massachusetts, is one example of a school that welcomes pressure to do better. With an endowment valued at nearly $1.7 billion, "it's morally incumbent upon us to do everything in our power to make [this kind of] education possible for as broad a range as we can," says Amherst dean of admissions Tom Parker.

About 12 percent of students at Amherst received Pell Grants in 2006, and about 20 percent overall are low-income, if the count includes those who are similarly eligible for grants through other channels, Mr. Parker says.

Amherst makes sure the financial-aid packages it offers cover students' need through government and Amherst grants and campus jobs. The college used to include loans in its aid packages, but nearly a decade ago, it stopped asking students to take out loans if their families earned under $60,000; it gave them more grants instead. Last year, it expanded the no-loan policy to everyone on financial aid, meaning many middle-class students can also graduate debt-free.

Dozens of colleges made similar announcements in the past year. In part, these moves are seen as a response to pressures from some members of Congress who want wealthy colleges to use more of their endowment funds to improve affordability. Congress recently expanded maximum Pell Grant amounts.

For Amherst and other colleges that value diversity as an important contributor to all students' education, socioeconomic diversity is gaining more attention. As restrictions have cropped up on traditional affirmative-action categories such as race, attention to low-income students is sometimes seen as a way to help keep up representation of minorities.

But at private schools like Amherst, that's not the motivation, Parker says. Indeed, the Pell Grant recipients there are about equally African-American, white, Hispanic, and Asian-American.

Some parents wonder if their child might be paying more to subsidize low-income students, Parker says, but that's not the case, because funding for financial aid primarily comes from colleges' endowments. Many donors, in fact, dedicate their endowment gifts to financial aid. Even students who pay the full price of tuition, fees, and room and board – about $47,000 – aren't paying the full amount it costs for the college to house and educate each student, which adds up to nearly $80,000.

But financial aid alone isn't enough to boost low-income enrollments, many colleges have found. Amherst has hired more admissions staff to do outreach, and it pays for several hundred low-income students a year to visit campus. It also works with nonprofit groups such as QuestBridge, which identifies talented applicants from low-income backgrounds.

Current Amherst students from low-income backgrounds can earn their work-study money by mentoring high school counterparts through the college-application and financial-aid process, whether or not they want to apply to Amherst.

Ashley Armato worked as a mentor as a student at Amherst, where she recently graduated and started a one-year job in the admissions office. As the daughter of a firefighter and a maid, neither of whom went to college, she understood the challenges facing those she mentored. Students often started off assuming they could afford only community colleges, but she was able to explain financial aid and help them expand their options. She also reassured a lot of parents, sometimes speaking with them in Spanish.

Some four-year colleges and universities are aiming even younger in the pipeline to help ensure students have enough preparation to be strong applicants.

Rutgers University, the flagship public institution in New Jersey, recently created the Future Scholars Program, in which up to 200 local eighth-graders will participate in enrichment activities all the way through high school. The students meet income requirements and will be the first generation in their family to attend college, and they are promised full scholarships for tuition and fees if they are accepted into Rutgers. The university has launched a fundraising campaign and expects the costs to be covered through private donations and existing state and federal programs.

"I thought a lot about college – every day, every day," says Feliciano Cintron of Camden, N.J., who was selected for the program this summer. "As soon as this opportunity came … I just took it and said, 'I can't let go of this.' "

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