Graduating from a selective college can help low-income students climb the economic ladder, but many of the nation’s top public universities are turning their backs on the group.
Since the late 1990s, almost two-thirds of selective public universities have reduced the share of students they enroll who come from families earning less than $37,000 a year, according to a report released Thursday by New America. Policy analysts at the think tank found that a near-identical share of these schools have increased the percentage of students they enroll who come from families earning at least $110,000.
“As states have been cutting higher education budgets and with the ever-growing emphasis on prestige and rankings, these schools are becoming much more likely to go after wealthy students,” said Stephen Burd, co-author of the report and a senior policy analyst at New America.
The report uses data from Stanford University’s Equality of Opportunity Project, an effort led by economists Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman to examine economic outcomes among college students based on tax and financial-aid records. Among the 381 selective public universities included in the data, many had reduced their share of low-income students, by an average 4.6 percentage points.
One striking example is Stony Brook University in New York. The public research university on Long Island has had a lengthy history of lifting low-income and minority students into the middle class. More than half of students who enrolled there in the late 1990s and came from families earning less than $20,000 a year went on to make at least $110,000 by their mid-30s, according to the report.
Over the years, however, researchers say the state school has become less accessible for students from a similar background. The share of Stony Brook students from families making less than $37,000 has dropped by 8.5 percentage points since the late 1990s, according to the New America report. At the same time, the share of students whose families pull in six-figures has grown by about 7 percentage points, to nearly 40 percent in the class of 2013.
Braden Hosch, assistant vice president for institutional research at Stony Brook, said the university is committed to serving low-income students. Stony Brook, he said, has actually increased enrollment of students who are eligible for Pell Grants, a form of federal aid for students from families typically making less than $60,000. Between the 2002-2003 and 2016-2017 academic years, the number of Stony Brook students receiving Pell Grants rose from 5,195 to 5,483, according to the university.
“We now have 40 percent of our students paying no tuition this year because of Pell and Excelsior,” the statewide scholarship that covers tuition for New Yorkers whose families earns less than $125,000 a year, Hosch said.
Burd contends that Pell is not the best measure to judge whether a school is serving the neediest population because the grants are awarded to some students from lower-middle class families.
It is entirely possible that some of the shift at Stony Brook reflects rising incomes more broadly in the New York City area. The school still has a very high mobility rate, meaning it has a large fraction of poor students and produces excellent financial outcomes for them. But the report said the overall enrollment trend remains concerning because Stony Brook is so skilled at aiding the neediest students.
Public colleges and universities carry the load in higher education by enrolling the vast majority of the nation’s college students. Eight of the 10 colleges with the highest percentage of poor students landing in the upper middle class later in life are state schools, such as Stony Brook, San Jose State and New Jersey Institute of Technology. Yet these and other public colleges are contending with tepid state investment in higher education that has sent some looking elsewhere for revenue.
Burd said many four-year colleges are engaging in an arms race for students they most desire: the brightest and wealthiest. Meeting the full financial needs of poor students is an expensive proposition for schools, whereas offering partial scholarships to wealthier students could ultimately pay off. A little aid to cover some college costs can entice families that can afford to pay the balance, he said.
Take the University of Alabama, which spent more than $100 million awarding scholarships to student without financial need in the 2014-2015 academic year. That figure is up from about $12 million in 2000-2001, according to the report. The university devotes more than two-thirds of its scholarship money to this so-called merit aid, and has increased its share of wealthy students by nearly 13 percentage points.
Alabama dispatches admissions officers across the country to attract out-of-state students who pay twice as much as locals to attend, a strategy that has helped the university weather state budget cuts, the report said. University officials did not respond to requests for comment. In a previous interview with the Washington Post, University of Alabama president Stuart R. Bell said recruiting outsiders was a matter of state finances and demographics. Alabama’s population growth has been stagnant and there are fewer high school graduates.
Much like the University of Alabama, Stony Brook’s growth in out-of-state and international students took off as the New York legislature dialed back funding. While the New America report says this trend has left fewer available seats for local residents, Hosch at Stony Brook disputes the claims.
“We’re one of the more diverse campuses that you’ll see in the United States. It’s a fantastic mix of students from all over the world. It’s been intentional, but we have preserved — in fact, increased — the number of spots for New York students while we’ve done it,” he said.
Thursday’s report did note that about one-fourth of selective public institutions increased the share of poor students they serve at the same time they reduced the share of wealthy ones. Georgia State University, for instance, boosted its share of low-income students by 7.5 percentage points, to almost one-third, while decreasing the number of wealthy students by 8.5 percentage points, to about one-fourth of the student body.
Still, the vast majority of top public institutions have become less accessible to students with the greatest need.
“Understanding the causes of this trend — as well as what policies might help reverse it — is critical to improving opportunity for all in higher education,” said Friedman, an associate professor of economics at Brown University.