New index ranks colleges based on their economic diversity

The New York Times recently published an update to its College Access Index, which tracks the economic diversity of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities. The latest list shows that while some schools increased enrollment of Pell Grant recipients across a decade, most saw their share of low-income students decrease. The update from the Times comes as U.S. higher education institutions have been exploring other ways of diversifying their student populations in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling that ended race-conscious college admissions.

Tracking economic diversity

The College Access Index tracks changes in the share of Pell Grant recipients at each school and ranks those schools in order of economic diversity. This most recent index analyzed data from every college with a four-year graduation rate of at least 75% and combined data on enrollment and tuition costs to capture how much effort schools were putting into recruiting and graduating students from low- and middle-income households, the Times says. The index then compared each college’s percentage of Pell recipients in the entering class in 2020-21 with that figure for the entering class in 2010-11.

While the index shows that 120 selective institutions enrolled more first-year, first-time students who received Pell grants in the last decade, a number of colleges continue to enroll a disproportionate share of students from upper income households while enrolling a very low percentage of Pell Grant recipients, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Recruiting talented students from lower-income families “is the smart thing to do, because the country needs as much brainpower as we can get,” Raynard Kington, the president of Grinnell College, tells the Times. “​​And it’s the right thing to do, because it’s not fair that your ability to get a college education can be determined by your ability to buy an education.”

The enrollment gap affects both students from lower-income families as well as the national economy. Although a college education is still the most dependable pathway to upward mobility, financial barriers prevent many academically successful, low-income students from accessing higher education, especially from selective colleges. Research from the Times has shown that the individual college attended by students from upper-middle-class households has little effect on their post-graduate earnings, after controlling for their SAT scores, but selective colleges have an outsized impact on the trajectory of Black, Latine, first-generation, and low-income students, who earned more after attending elite schools.

Recruiting more economically diverse students

Higher education’s focus on economic diversity emerged over a decade ago with race-based affirmative action under attack and data revealing that top colleges maintained affluent student populations despite varying their racial, ethnic, gender, religious, and geographical composition, the Times says.

“Over the past five years or so, we’ve seen much more attention paid to economic mobility,” Michael Itzkowitz, founder and president of the HEA Group, a higher education research and consulting agency, told Inside Higher Ed. “If institutions are only enrolling a wealthy population, they’re essentially providing no economic movement whatsoever. It takes a more diverse body of students to lift this generation up.” 

Some colleges with large endowments, such as Harvard University, have implemented more generous financial aid policies. However, not all wealthy colleges enrolled more low-income students, and some schools with smaller endowments have increased their share of Pell Grant recipients. Selective colleges that increased their enrollment of lower-income students made policy changes in the last decade—adopting need-blind admissions, excluding loans from financial aid packages, reaching out to students in rural communities, and ensuring students are immediately assigned advisors—to recruit high-achieving students from low-income households who would otherwise not attend college, Inside Higher Ed says.

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