How Low-Income Students Do College

For a while now, wealthy and top-tier colleges have been in the news for trying to attract low-income students and also for failing to attract — and retain — that same population.

Just under 15 percent of the undergraduates at the country’s 50 wealthiest colleges received Pell Grants in 2008–9, the most recent year for which national data are available. That percentage hasn’t changed much from 2004–5, around the time that elite institutions focused their attention on the issue. And Pell Grant students are still significantly less represented at the wealthiest colleges than they are at public and nonprofit four-year colleges nation­wide, where grant recipients accounted for roughly 26 percent of students in 2008–9.
Individual colleges among the wealthiest have made gains in enrolling Pell Grant students, who generally come from families with annual incomes of less than $40,000. But others have lost ground. …
Among the 50 wealthiest colleges, the share of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants in 2008–9 ranges from 5.7 percent at Washington University in St. Louis to 30.7 percent at UCLA.
These well-off colleges educate a small slice of the country’s undergraduates. Still, the choices they make can set the tone for admissions and financial-aid policies across the country.

Since 2008–09, of course, schools have continued to make adjustments. Did they help? Well, in 2012, the Times reported that “affluent students have an advantage and the gap is widening.” So, no.

Low-income students with above-average scores on eighth grade tests have a college graduation rate of 26 percent — lower than more affluent students with worse test scores. Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference in the share of affluent and poor students who earned a college degree. Now the gap is 45 points. The gap has also grown in college entrance rates and spending per child on tutors, sports, music and other enrichment activities.

Perhaps you remember that article: it told the story of three bright, motivated young women from Texas, each of them determined to graduate from college and use her diploma as a springboard to a better life. Things worked out rather differently than they expected.

Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.

In short, class plays a huge role both in getting students to college and then in keeping them there, too, by making them feel welcome. As a Times op-ed writer put it in 2014:

The other students I encountered on campus seemed foreign to me. Their parents had gone to Ivy League schools; they played tennis. I had never before been east of Nebraska. My mother raised five children while she worked for the post office, and we kept a goat in our yard to reduce the amount of garbage we’d have to pay for at the county dump.

Schools cannot pretend that once a freshman enrolls, the school’s responsibility is discharged. It can feel lonely and alienating to feel like an outsider on campus, and being a first-year in a new place can be lonely and alienating enough.

So now institutions are trying to figure out how to solve both problems. Franklin & Marshall in Pennsylvania for example:

The liberal arts school here in Pennsylvania’s Amish region ended almost all merit aid a few years ago and expanded grants for those in need, launching a recruiting revolution that has drawn national attention.
The share of freshmen in high need soared, while the share who pay full price shrank. Test scores of incoming students held steady. This year the school cracked the top 40 in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of liberal arts colleges, rising to 37th.
People here avoid the word “merit” and its connotation of subsidies for the affluent. Instead, F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield talks of a “talent strategy” targeting students from all family incomes. Full charge for tuition, fees, room and board at the school is $60,799. Need-based aid, he said, “makes it possible for super-qualified kids to pursue the education they’ve earned.”

At the University of Michigan, students are beginning to “out” themselves as low-income and form “first-generation support groups.” And Swarthmore, which was labeled one of America’s stingiest colleges not too long ago by CBS News, is trying something similar:

the college published a list of administrators, professors, and staff who share experiences that may resonate with these students. The college has also created a summer bridge program for underrepresented students aiming to pursue a degree in STEM fields, and allowed students with extenuating circumstances to remain on campus over break.