Highly selective colleges focus on financial aid to increase diversity

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling that ended race-based affirmative action, some highly selective U.S. colleges and universities are focused on increasing financial aid as a key race-neutral strategy for boosting the socioeconomic and racial diversity of their student populations, Inside Higher Ed reports. Last month, a report from a Princeton University committee exploring post-affirmative action admissions policies suggested that the university’s “greatest opportunity to attract diverse talent pertains to socioeconomic diversity.

“Plenty of financial aid initiatives were announced before the [Supreme Court] decision, but the trend seems to have really accelerated since,” Richard Kahlenberg, director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s American Identity Project, tells Inside Higher Ed. “Universities do care about racial diversity. When they can’t pursue it directly, they’ll do so through financial aid.”

Raising income thresholds for aid

Some of that increased aid is targeting students from middle-income households, who previously would not have qualified for free tuition. “There’s still an underrepresentation of the middle class on these campuses,” Kahlenberg says.

Last month, Dartmouth College nearly doubled the family income threshold for students to receive free tuition, room, and board from $65,000 to $125,000 after receiving its largest ever scholarship bequest. In February, Vanderbilt University expanded its no-loan financial aid program to include full-tuition scholarships for students from households earning $150,000 or less each year. Late last year, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the University of Virginia announced they would expand their tuition-free programs for in-state undergraduates from families making up to $80,000 and $100,000, respectively. Just over a week before the Supreme Court ruling last summer, Duke University announced it would provide full tuition for students from the Carolinas whose households earned $150,000 or less. 

Related: New index ranks colleges based on their economic diversity >

Maine’s Colby College, meanwhile, has introduced a tiered financial aid plan, following a $10 million gift from an anonymous donor. Starting with the Class of 2029, students from families making up to $200,000, $150,000, and $100,000 or less annually pay no more than $20,000, $15,000, and $10,000 respectively for tuition, room, and board. Only families making $75,000 or less receive a tuition-free education.

Aid alone is not enough

Experts emphasize that recruitment and outreach will be essential for increased aid to have its desired impact. Vanderbilt, for instance, is expanding partnerships with programs working to increase educational access for rural, low-income, and first generation students. “Now, colleges have a powerful incentive to not just say they’re meeting more students’ financial need, but to bring in more students with higher need,” Kahlenberg says.

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