A report just issued by the advocacy group Education Trust puts some numbers on an evident trend: in recent years, flagship public universities have been doing a poorer job of attracting, enrolling, funding and retaining economically disadvantaged students.
In 2003, 50 percent of students at the best public universities (places like the University of Michigan, UNC Chapel Hill, UC Berkeley, etc.) came from families from the bottom 60 percent of family income. By 2007, that had substantially dropped, to 46 percent.
Why the change? One reason is that these universities have been throwing more money at students with money. The report reveals that in 2007, these universities spent $361 million on grant aid to students from families earning more than $115,000 a year. That represents an increase of 28 percent since 2003. For families making between $80,000-$115,000, the amount of aid went up considerably less, just 17 percent. The report states:
Among students from families earning more than $100,000, the default choice for college is now public, four-year doctorate-granting institutions.
And why have these universities been targeting the well-off? Education Trust suggests that it’s partly explained by “pressure from colleges guides [i.e., US News rankings] to select only the students who can make them ‘look good’ in the rankings.”
Naturally, I examined the report to see how my employer, the U. of Delaware, stacks up. Not too good. It turns out that it ranks dead last among all flagship universities in percentage of students receiving Pell Grants (a reliable index of economically disadvantaged students), at 8.7 percent. (Second lowest was University of Virginia, at 9.5 percent. Highest was University of New Mexico, at 39.) Not only that, but UD was tied for the second-biggest decrease in Pell Grant recipients between ’04 and ’07.
UD Admissions Director Louis Hirsh, interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, said the school was treated unfairly in the report because it enrolls a disproportionate number of out-of-state students at the main campus in Newark. (The Inquirer reported him giving the figure of 70 percent. In fact, the most recent number reported by the school is 64 percent, up from 58 percent in 2004.) He said that a “fairer comparison would be to look only at the Delawareans enrolled on our campus.”
However, he did not state the percentage of Delawareans who are Pell-eligible, nor is that number readily available on the UD web site. One fact the school does publicize is that a quarter of our students receive scholarships “based solely on academic merit,” without regard to financial need.
I certainly don’t mean to stigmatize Mr. Hirsh, whom I respect. I do know that when I look out at my classes, I see a group that has appeared more and more affluent over the years. I also am certain that in the harsh economic times since 2007, these trends have surely accelerated. Knowing that we’re part of a national phenomenon doesn’t make me feel any better about the people who are missing out.