A Passion to Highlight Which Colleges Do Well by Low-Income Students

New America

Stephen Burd, an analyst at the New America Foundation: “Colleges aren’t necessarily helping the government with its college-access mission.”
September 17, 2014

The question of which colleges serve low-income students well has gotten a lot of attention this year, thanks in part to a White House summit, in January, and a new spin on college rankings, released by The New York Times this month. But it’s hardly a new line of inquiry—Stephen Burd has been thinking about it since he worked at The Chronicle in a job pretty similar to mine back in the 1990s.

Mr. Burd has continued to track the issue at the New America Foundation, where he is a senior policy analyst in the education-policy program. On Wednesday the think tank will release the second installment of "Undermining Pell," Mr. Burd’s look at colleges’ shares of low-income students and the prices those students pay.

The report examines public and private nonprofit four-year colleges separately, grouping each according to how well it does on the two metrics. The report praises Vassar College and 23 other private colleges where more than 15 percent of students receive Pell Grants and where average net prices for low-income students are $10,000 or less. Other colleges are called out for enrolling few needy students, expecting them to pay a lot, or both.

In a conversation this week, Mr. Burd talked about how colleges succeed or stumble in those areas, and how well the available data capture what they are doing. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Q. Your report finds there are very few colleges that both enroll many low-income students as a share of their student body and make attendance affordable for them. What does it take for a college to do well on both of those measures?

A. What it really takes is leadership, the example of Catharine Bond Hill at Vassar and Anthony Marx when he was at Amherst. It takes someone who’s dedicated to the educational attainment of low-income students.

Q. At the public colleges, you mention that it has to do with state policy as well.

A. The publics do a lot better than the privates in the report. But as state budget cuts have been occurring over the last few years, and with the really intense competition for out-of-state students, we’re seeing publics starting to mimic the practices of the privates. That’s really worrisome considering that the publics have a mission to educate all of the students in their states, not just the wealthy ones.

Q. Some readers may protest that colleges that do really well on both of these measures, particularly the private ones, are places that have already won all the prizes. They have a lot of money, they have a very strong student body, including a large chunk of very affluent students, and now they’re turning their attention to enrolling and supporting more low-income students than they did in the past. How much of an accomplishment is that, really?

A. When you compare them to the other schools that are in their categories, I think it’s a real accomplishment. A lot of schools have argued that these low-income students who could enroll in such selective colleges are just not out there, so I really do applaud the schools that are making an effort. Of course, they’re many times smaller than the publics, and they enroll only small shares of students, and I think [The New York Times’s] David Leonhardt saw that last week, but in comparison to others like them, they really are making big efforts.

Q. It’s clear you’re really passionate about this topic. What do you think is at stake?

A. We’re in a period of intense competition in college admissions. Everybody wants the same students—the best and brightest so they can rise up the U.S. News rankings, and the wealthiest so they can increase their revenues. Colleges are increasingly using their institutional dollars to get them, and the more they do that, the less they have to spend on need-based aid. As a result, low-income students are being asked to pay a very steep price, leaving them little choice but to take on heavy debt loads or engage in activities that lessen their likelihood of earning their degrees, such as working full time when enrolled or dropping out until they can afford to return.

My interest in the subject dates back to my time at The Chronicle. I spent more than a decade covering federal financial aid there, so my focus was really on what can the government do to make college more accessible for low-income students. But the government can’t go it alone.

Q. As you mention in the report, there are several problems with the federal net-price-by-income data, some of which everyone’s known for a while. And then our recent reporting has shown that the elite private colleges that collect more information from families are reporting their data two different ways, which can lead to quite different results. But you decided to go ahead and use the data. How did you think that through?

A. You guys really did identify a shortcoming in the data, and it’s something that we did grapple with. We tried to be upfront in the paper when we thought it was a potential issue. But I think it’s important to remember that it applies only to elite private colleges that award generous amounts of need-based aid and isn’t an issue for most institutions.

Q. I think there are only a couple of publics that use the CSS Profile form to collect more-detailed financial information from students.

A. For the publics, definitely not an issue. We think that dismissing the data is a mistake; it lets too many colleges that are charging low-income students a high net price off the hook. But it does make the comparisons a bit harder than we’d like.

Q. What do you hope that this report accomplishes?

A. It’s important for people and policy makers to know that colleges aren’t necessarily helping the government with its college-access mission. That’s something that’s gone largely unnoticed in Washington. We do have some suggested policy changes.

Q. You had a version of this report out last year. Has the conversation changed, or did you get much traction with policy makers?

A. We were able to raise a lot of awareness about it in the media. I still think that policy makers haven’t necessarily paid that much attention, so we’re still trying to kind of push it out there. And we want to look at what the trends are over time. This is probably not the last time we’re going to write about this.