Selective Scholarships, Stigma, Lack of Support:

Colleges Struggle Toward Socioeconomic Diversity

With costs skyrocketing, low-income students face major challenges

Multimedia Reporting by Mackenzie Dunn

5,000 percent. That’s the rate of inflation for college costs over the past 30 years. In 1985 it cost $5,107 to go to a private college. Today, it costs about $42,419. With the price of a college education going up in correspondence with its necessity for employment, it seems only the elite can get a degree.

Behind the perfectly manicured lawns and pristine facilities of many selective four-year universities lies a need for more financial aid and a student body with a changing demographics, which requires more attention.


As costs continue to rise, a greater percentage of the budget at most universities is being used to fund diversity and inclusivity programs aimed at offering more people with varied backgrounds an education. This is being augmented by a national push by the White House over the past few years for greater inclusion in higher education. But this isn’t enough to offset the burden of college costs for many deserving students. Let’s examine the issue.


Special programs help some overcome socio-economic challenges

Brooklyn-born Eugenia Baidoo dreamed of going to college from a young age. “I always wanted an education for myself,” she says, “And my mom, you know, she would tell me to do well in school so I could be able to go.”

* According to the National Post-Secondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS). Infographics by Mackenzie Dunn

But, circumstances were stacked against Baidoo. The 19-year-old is one of eight children in a family of African immigrants. Because her father lives and works back in Ghana and only occasionally sends money to the family, she has essentially had one parent.

“I do a lot for my family, I have to help care for my little brother sometimes, and he’s handful,” says Baidoo of her severely autistic 7-year-old brother.

Baidoo could be categorized as underprivileged when measured against others in terms of her access to resources and economic background. She attended one of poorest-ranked high school’s in Brooklyn, Erasmus Hall, which she says was teeming with violence and apathetic peers.

“I just put my head down and worked,” she says.

“Strategies are different depending on the student and the school.” — Amy Markian

But the school lacked the resources to help her achieve her college dream. That’s where a grassroots non-profit organization, Bottom Line entered the picture.

The organization’s mission goes beyond simply assisting underprivileged students in gaining entry into a college. It is committed to helping them stay there, breaking down the real costs and helping them focus on career goals and ways to reach them.

“The strategies are different depending on the student and the school,” says Amy Markian, senior success team manager for the national office of Bottom Line.

This may include seeking particular scholarships or entire programs devoted to diversity inclusion and need-based aid. Markian says some colleges are better at providing this aid than others. The agency works with both public and private schools.

Bottom Line is just one of many organizations aimed at helping underprivileged students. It takes a one-on-one approach to coaching the students through their transition in to higher education. This crucial method includes tracking the courses in which the student is enrolled, the ongoing funding challenges and the student’s chosen career path. One-on-one college coaching has been found to increase college graduation rates by 4 percentage points, according the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Bottom Line reports that its graduation rate is 86 percent compared to the overall national graduation rate of underprivileged students is about 11 percent.

Sometimes coaching can’t overcome economics

Not all students are lucky enough to have personal college coaches like Baidoo. Many underprivileged students who apply to college don’t know how they’re going to afford it.

Additional programmatic support and mentoring for first-generation students and students with diverse backgrounds is one way many universities are beginning to work to try to boost their persistence in meeting the challenges of higher education all the way through to completion and graduation. But this type of institutional support generally doesn’t take on all of the economic challenges.

It is no secret that those of higher socio-economic status often make up the majority on United States college campuses. Simple social mobility probability theory states that if people come are well-educated young members of the middle or upper class, they are more likely to have a fairly easy path through college, following in their parent’s footsteps.

Baidoo, now a student at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is balancing working 27 hours a week and being a full-time student taking five classes to pay the few hundred dollars of tuition that the federal aid offered to her does not cover.

Baidoo works her 27 hour a week on op of her classes. Photo submitted by Eugenia Baidoo

She says it’s a hard balance, but she’s lucky to be able to go to a state school thanks to the public funds that subsidize the majority of her education. She says she’s going to graduate with loans she feels she can eventually pay back. While hers is not a rare case, not all students can take on that kind of workload and handle college, and most students with her background are rarely afforded the opportunity to attend a private university.


Economic diversity is expensive

Most U.S. colleges, public and private, are addressing these issues by strategically seeking out increased diversity on their campuses.

Elon University, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina charges about $950 per credit hour, has a special scholarship program that seeks out students who are working to overcome challenges.

Bria Samuels, 20, is one of those students. She has been shuffled around to various homes in foster care since the age of three and she has been financially independent since she was 18.

“The Watson and Odyssey Scholarship program has literally made my attendance at Elon possible,” she says.

This program is similar to diversity programs at universities across the nation. But as Patrick Murphy, Elon’s associate dean of admissions and director of financial planning, explains, it takes a lot of money to fund these 100 students’ education.

“It’s expensive to create diversity,” he says.

While Elon’s 10-year strategic plan aims to attain a larger increase in diversity, the school ranks one of the lowest in the number of enrolled students who receive federal Pell Grants, a significant measure of economic diversity at any university.

Graphic by Mackenzie Dunn.

The school’s president, Leo Lambert, says he wishes Elon could move more quickly in the quest for a more diverse campus. But, by comparison, many of the schools in the immediate area in North Carolina aren’t doing any better.

Only nine percent of Elon’s student population is eligible to receive Pell Grants, but other major private universities with much larger endowments with more funding to grant additional scholarships are not doing that much better at creating places on campus for the underprivileged. Davidson College is at 13 percent and Duke University at 14 percent, according to U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings.

“We are an elite school, and most of the elite students just come from more privileged backgrounds.” — Torry Mayez

Davidson College’s director of financial planning, David Gelinas, says Davidson does not have any specific program in place to increase socioeconomic diversity. He explained that the school looks at applications “holistically” and on a need-blind basis.

This is similar to nearby Duke University’s approach, which also first accepts students based on other qualifications, and then assesses their economic standing.

“We are an elite school, and most of the elite students just come from more privileged backgrounds,” says Torry Mayez, a student facilitator advocating for change in equity at Duke’s Center for Multicultural Affairs. “Because of that, I don’t know that Duke is actively seeking to expand socioeconomic diversity but I think it tries its best.”


Breaking stereotypes

A privileged background creates a similar familiarity among the students at private universities. Samuels does not fit the mold. She says she feels she has to struggle to be accepted in the Elon community because of her circumstances.

*Average debt levels for all graduating seniors with student loans rose to $29,400 in 2012 — a 25% increase from $23,450 in 2008, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Infographic by Mackenzie Dunn.

“It’s disheartening many people feel that students on scholarships are simply here for diversity, that we weren’t high-achieving prior to Elon,” Samuels says. “There is a large gap between the socioeconomic groups at my school. It’s quite astounding.”

According to the 2012 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 50.9 percent of recent low-income high school completers, including both graduates and people who completed an equivalency degree and who are ages 16 to 24, were enrolled in a two- or four-year college, a statistic that is down seven percent from 2007.

It’s disheartening many people feel that students on scholarships are simply here for diversity, that we weren’t high-achieving prior to Elon. There is a large gap between socioeconomic groups at my school. It’s quite astounding.” — Bria Samuels

Because Samuels is an independent student she is responsible for all of her university bills as well as her living expenses.

Students from low-income families are more likely to graduate with student loans, with 77 percent graduating with debt in 2012, compared with 50 percent of their more affluent peers according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS).

And the share of low-income graduates who borrow money has also increased in recent decades, rising from 67 percent to 77 percent over a period of roughly 20 years, based on the NPSAS collected by the National Center for Education Statistics.


Looking ahead in higher education

Anna Stovall, an admissions counselor at Davidson College, says over the course of her three years there she has seen a push for more diversity.

“Honestly, the emphasis on socioeconomic diversity and aid has never been greater,” she says.

Many schools are moving forward with strategies for helping high-achieving underprivileged students find their spot in higher education. Washington University in St. Louis, recently ranked the least socioeconomically diverse school in the nation, is investing $125 million in a five-year plan to increase its Pell Grant population.

Aside from individual institutions, even the government has started actions aimed at increasing students from all backgrounds achieving higher education.

The White House has created a memorandum that will allow an additional five million borrowers with federal student loans to cap their monthly payment at 10 percent of their income in an effort to make loan payments more affordable.

Source: Institute for College Access & Success Quick Facts Report March 2014.

The Obama administration has proposed the possibility of free community college or online learning as a more-cost-effective solution. It would require participants to maintain a 2.5 GPA and be enrolled at least-half time.

Government would subsidize three-quarters of the average cost of community college tuition, while the rest would be based on individual state participation and funding.

Although the logistics for how this funding would actually be applied is still vague, the proposal has the potential to help students from a variety of backgrounds.

People like Samuels and Baidoo are grateful to have to opportunity to earn a degree.

“It hasn’t been easy,” says Baidoo. “And you know what, it still isn’t, but I’m just trying to get through it so I can get a job.”

About the multimedia journalist:

R4PG sat down with reporter Mackenzie Dunn to discuss her multimedia report on the struggle for socioeconomic diversity at U.S. universities.

Mackenzie Dunn is double concentrating in both Broadcast and Print and Online journalism at Elon University. She is also a political science and poverty and social justice minor. Her experience includes an internship at Saatchi & Saatchi Global Advertising, and participation in student media.