In October 2017, less than a year into my tenure as the president of Washington and Lee University in Virginia, The Washington Post called to ask why W&L had the lowest percentage of Pell-eligible students among the nation’s top-ranked colleges.
The data showed that 6 percent of our entering students in the fall of 2015 were eligible for the federal Pell Grant, which is the most commonly used proxy for an institution’s commitment to socio-economic diversity.
It was an embarrassingly low number. But I knew we were already doing better. And I was confident our progress would continue.
This fall, 14 percent of our entering class is Pell eligible. The progression over the last four years has gone from that low of 6 percent to 10 percent to 12 percent to 14 percent.
The rapid increase in the number of low-income students at W&L reflects our commitment to enroll and support talented young people regardless of their family financial circumstances. Our new strategic plan calls for us to become need-blind in admissions, to eliminate financial barriers that deter students from full participation in academic and extracurricular programs, and to intensify our efforts to reach the very best students from all backgrounds.
Pell numbers are not the goal. We are driven by our mission — to prepare students for personal achievement, responsible leadership and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society. To accomplish that mission, we must enroll a student body that reflects the diversity of the world in which we live.
We invest in low-income students because their intelligence, curiosity and capability enhance our educational community. Each percentage point increase in our Pell number represents nearly 20 students who contribute abilities, experiences and perspectives that benefit everyone at the university. At the same time, each of these students reaps the benefits of being at a small, well-resourced institution. More than 90 percent of our Pell recipients graduate.
Why don’t even more of these students enroll at W&L and other selective colleges and universities?
Studies have shown that many high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to selective colleges even though they are qualified. Responding to this challenge — known as “undermatching” — requires a variety of tactics.
First, and most obviously, make it financially possible for students from low-income families to attend. W&L meets 100 percent of the demonstrated need for every admitted student without requiring loans. The W&L Promise guarantees free tuition to any admitted student with less than $100,000 in family income and typical assets. Lower-income students are eligible for additional support to help with room, board and other educational expenses. The MyinTuition financial aid calculator on our website enables any family to get an accurate estimate of its expected contribution in just a few minutes.
Second, cast as wide a net as possible. W&L partners with community-based organizations that specialize in helping selective institutions and high-achieving, low-income students find each other. We have a long-standing relationship with QuestBridge, which matches high school seniors from across the country with full scholarships to 40 of the nation’s top colleges. We also work with regional organizations, including Chicago Scholars, Arkansas Commitment, and Say Yes to Education. And we have joined other colleges and universities in the American Talent Initiative, which is a collective effort dedicated to enrolling an additional 50,000 low- and middle-income students at the institutions with the highest graduation rates.
Third, bring these students to campus so they can experience firsthand what the institution has to offer. W&L’s Diversity and Inclusion Visit Experience (DIVE) program enables more than 100 select high school seniors, who would otherwise not be able to get to our campus, to travel to Lexington at our expense and spend two days with us. These students spend time in our classrooms and dorms, learn firsthand from our faculty about educational opportunities, and have the chance to speak with our staff to demystify the process of applying for admission and financial aid. Data shows that the high school students who participate in this program are significantly more likely to enroll at W&L.
College remains the best investment we can make in America’s future. The United States has an abundance of talented young women and men who want the chance to realize their full potential. Providing students from low-income families the access and support they need to achieve their dreams is in everyone’s best interest. Along with the other great colleges and universities in this nation, W&L is serious about doing our part to identify these students and launch them on the many paths they will take as they pursue their personal passions and contribute to the public good.
William C. Dudley has been president of Washington and Lee University since January 2017. Previously he was provost at Williams College.