Admissions & Student Aid

Flagships Increase Aid for the Poorest Students, but Not Enough, Report Says

January 13, 2010

Public flagship universities are failing to enroll enough low-income or underrepresented-minority students while directing much of their financial aid toward wealthier students, according to a report released Wednesday by the Education Trust.

The report, "Opportunity Adrift: Our Flagship Universities Are Straying From Their Public Mission," is a follow-up to "Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation's Premier Public Universities," which the research and advocacy group released in 2006.

The new report looks at the distribution of financial aid to full-time, dependent undergraduates at public research-extensive universities, a category that includes but is not limited to the public flagships. Among students who received grants from their colleges, students in the bottom income quintile (in 2007, that would include families making $30,200 or less) were given an average of $4,910 in 2007, compared with $3,982 in 2003 ( measured in 2007 dollars), an increase of 23 percent. Students in the top income group received $4,158 compared with $4,342 in 2003, a decrease of 4 percent.

Despite making gains in institutional aid, the poorest students had an average of $10,445 in unmet need after all college, state, and federal grants were taken into account. The students would have to come up with that money through the Federal Work Study program, other work, and loans. The wealthiest group of students did not, on average, need any grant aid to cover the cost of college at these universities, but still received average grants of $2,025 from all sources.

Still, there are two "ugly secrets" about access at public flagships, said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, at a news conference: There are more low-income students who are highly qualified than the number that enroll in such colleges, and flagship universities are choosing not to be very generous to low-income students.

M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, countered that point in a written statement, saying that "a significant proportion of the scholarship and financial aid available at public research universities comes from endowed funds that are often restricted by donors such that they cannot be awarded on the basis of financial need alone.

Access and Success

In addition to examining the distribution of grants, "Opportunity Adrift" looked at how the access and success of minority and low-income students has changed at the flagships since the 2006 report.

Flagship universities saw a slight improvement in their enrollment of underrepresented minorities, defined in the report as blacks, Latinos, and American Indians. (While some Asian groups would be considered underrepresented, it is not possible to break the data down far enough to look at different groups of Asian students.) In 2004, 12.1 percent of freshmen at public flagships belonged to these underrepresented groups, compared with 13.4 percent in 2007. During the same period, the proportion of high-school graduates from those groups grew from 27.4 percent to 29.2 percent nationwide.

The proportion of low-income students, defined as those who have received a Pell Grant, decreased between 2004 and 2007 at the flagships, the report found. In 2004, 22.1 percent of students at flagships received a Pell Grant, compared with 20.4 percent in 2007. During the same period, the share of students with Pell Grants shrank from 40.8 percent to 39.1 percent at all colleges and universities.

The report also looked at the success of underrepresented minority and low-income students at flagships. In 2008, the six-year graduation rate for underrepresented minority students at flagships was 61.1 percent, compared with 58 percent in 2005. In comparison, the six-year graduation rate for white freshmen was 70.5 percent in 2008 and 69.3 percent in 2005.

Data on graduation rates for students who received Pell Grants was not available, though colleges will soon be required to report that information. The researchers did ask the flagships for that data, and received it from 13 of them. They found that among those universities, 61 percent of Pell Grant recipients graduated in six years, compared with 72 percent of nonrecipients.