(By Mary F. Calvert)

Leaders in higher education have known for many years that low-income students are underrepresented at top institutions. How to change that? Catharine B. Hill, the president of Vassar College in New York, writes in this post about the only way that colleges and universities can expand socioeconomic diversity.

By Catharine B. Hill

As college admission wait lists begin to clear and tuition deposits arrive, campus officials will soon know who plans to attends in the coming academic year. And with the announcement of a U.S. Department of Education “First In The World” competition offering $75 million in funding to expand college access and improve student learning while reducing costs, we have reason to hope that the numbers of students from all backgrounds will grow in the future.

Anxiety about increasing income inequality in America has focused attention on who gets seats in college, especially at our country’s most selective institutions. This concern is well placed, because the colleges and universities with the highest endowments per student allocate the most resources to their students’ education and have the greatest success in graduating their students and sending them on to prestigious careers and graduate programs.

If higher education in America is to continue to contribute to equal opportunity and economic mobility, not only do its leaders need to make more places available across the entire system, the highly selective institutions need to do their fair share by educating a more socioeconomically diverse student body.

Higher education officials have known for over a decade that low-income students are underrepresented at top institutions and that there are plenty of high-ability, low-income students who are qualified to attend. Studies that I conducted with fellow economist Gordon C. Winston on a group of the country’s most selective private non-profit colleges and universities found that the share of lower-income students could be increased by 30 to 60 percent at these institutions, while maintaining academic quality. Work done by William Bowen, former president of Princeton University and the Mellon Foundation, and also by the Century Foundation for larger groups of selective colleges and universities, reached similar conclusions. There should be no debate about whether there are qualified lower-income students out there.

Where there is debate, however, is why they are underrepresented at selective colleges and universities and what to do about it. For qualified low-income students to attend a selective institution, they need to apply, get admitted, decide to attend, receive adequate financial aid and support while at college, and then graduate. Low-income students can end up being underrepresented at selective institutions, even if they’ve managed to get through high school with the credentials to attend, because of failures at any one of these steps.

Some scholars have suggested that it is primarily a question of getting such students into the applicant pools of top colleges, by giving them adequate information about the opportunities offered, particularly about the actual price after need-based financial aid is taken into account. The cost of attending many of the selective colleges may be substantially lower at high-tuition institutions. When their generous financial aid policies are taken into account, the net price at these private institutions is below the price at many public institutions with lower tuition. It is true that too many students, families, and their college counselors do not realize this. But, this reasoning suggests that there is a very low-cost solution to under-representation at the selective colleges, an idea which is highly misleading. The real constraint? Resources for financial aid.

To begin, there are only about 50 or so colleges and universities in the United States that are both need-blind in the admissions process and meet the full financial need of their students. This means that all of the other selective institutions are already turning down qualified students based on the students’ financial need or not offering them adequate financial aid to actually attend. If improved information leads to greater numbers of lower-income students applying to these schools, it will only result in a greater number being rejected or else offered acceptances that they cannot afford. Some talented lower-income students may displace other lower-income students, but the aggregate number educated will not change.

Others institutions, which are committed to accepting students regardless of financial need and giving them adequate financial aid to attend, still face financial constraints and trade-offs. And, as more demands are placed on budgets, colleges and universities are moving away from their commitments to financial aid. This is a hard truth, the trade-off that every college and university faces: Every dollar spent on financial aid is not available to spend on improving the quality of the academic program offered.

To increase the socioeconomic diversity of the student body, especially at America’s leading colleges and universities, more resources must be allocated to financial aid. Colleges and universities can make these decisions and commit even greater resources on their own, but the government can also create greater incentives to do so. The Department of Education’s new “First in the World” competition is a welcome example. The annual financial aid budget of my college alone is $60 million, and $75 million in federal award dollars will go fast. But it will not go to waste.