Admissions & Student Aid

Elite Colleges Fail to Gain More Students on Pell Grants

Pete Marovich for The Chronicle

'Hoos for Open Access, a student group at the U. of Virginia, advocates for socioeconomic diversity at the university. Members educate low-income prospective students about campus life.
March 27, 2011

During the past decade, the country's wealthiest and most elite colleges have faced heightened pressure to serve more low-income students. Many of the colleges responded by pouring millions of dollars into generous financial-aid policies and increasing their recruitment efforts.

But those measures seem to have barely moved the needle. The share of undergraduates receiving federal Pell Grants, which go to financially needy students, at many of the nation's wealthiest institutions has remained relatively flat in the past five years, according to a Chronicle analysis of data from the Education Department.

Just under 15 percent of the undergradu­ates at the country's 50 wealthiest colleges received Pell Grants in 2008-9, the most recent year for which national data are available. That percentage hasn't changed much from 2004-5, around the time that elite institutions focused their attention on the issue. And Pell Grant students are still signifi­cantly less represented at the wealthiest colleges than they are at public and nonprofit four-year colleges nation­wide, where grant recipients accounted for roughly 26 percent of students in 2008-9.

Individual colleges among the wealthiest have made gains in enrolling Pell Grant students, who generally come from families with annual incomes of less than $40,000. But others have lost ground.

It may be that these elite colleges are simply competing with one another for a small group of low-income students rather than increasing the number willing to consider selective colleges, says Christopher N. Avery, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who is studying the college-selection process of students in Virginia.

"The colleges are fishing in the same pool," he says. "The goal has to be expanding the pool of students who are applying, but that's very hard to do."

Elite colleges have countless competing priorities when crafting a class: academic excellence, undergraduate research, sports teams and artistic endeavors, finances, racial and economic diversity, global connections, their own prestige. "No student that we admit is being admitted because they represent single quality X," says Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University.

Some priorities, of course, present a zero-sum game. Colleges that enroll large numbers of international students, for example, are filling seats with students who aren't even eligible for federal financial aid.

The Chronicle analyzed 12-month Pell Grant disbursement figures from the Education Department and the 12-month enrollment numbers that colleges report to the federal government. This measure includes students who enter in the spring. But it also includes summer enrollments, which may include many students who are taking a class or two but are not normally enrolled at the college. That makes those colleges' share of Pell Grant students appear smaller than they would be if only fall and spring enrollments were considered.

That helps explain why the University of California at Los Angeles saw one of the biggest declines among the 50 colleges in the proportion of Pell Grant recipients over the past five years. The university expanded its summer enrollment during that period, while its proportion of Pell recipients among regular fall and spring students has been fairly constant, university officials say.

Among the 50 wealthiest colleges, the share of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants in 2008-9 ranges from 5.7 percent at Washington University in St. Louis to 30.7 percent at UCLA.

These well-off colleges educate a small slice of the country's undergraduates. Still, the choices they make can set the tone for admissions and financial-aid policies across the country. Many elite colleges have rolled out new financial-aid policies that eliminate or cap loans for financially needy students. The no-loan programs vary quite a bit, depending on each college's priorities and its financial resources. Michigan State University's program, for example, is for in-state students living at or below the federal poverty level.

Other colleges offer loan-free aid packages to families with much greater resources than the typical American family. At Harvard, loans are no longer packaged for any undergraduate, parent contributions have been eliminated for families making up to $60,000 a year, and such contributions have been capped for families making much more. Similarly, Princeton University considers a family making $60,000 to be financially disadvantaged, and the university looks at families up to that cap when measuring its progress serving low-income students, says Robin A. Moscato, director of undergraduate financial aid.

Officials of elite colleges say using data from 2008-9, in particular, fails to capture some of the progress that they have made in just the last two years. For one, they've had more entering classes under their no-loan policies since then.

The Pell Grant program also grew significantly in 2009, when an increase in the maximum award and expanded eligibility kicked in. Students' Pell Grant eligibility depends on both the government formula used to determine financial need and the size of the maximum grant, both of which have changed over time.

Even so, the data from 2004-5 through 2008-9 capture a period when many selective colleges were putting more effort into enrolling low-income students. The colleges' experiences shed light on institutional practices that can make a difference, and highlight the challenges that colleges face in educating more needy students while also meeting other priorities.

Research shows that students' standardized-test scores correlate with their family income. And less-affluent students may have fewer opportunities to stand out in high school. "Selectivity is discriminatory against low-income students," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, a student-aid-information site. It's not that the colleges are keeping out needy students on purpose, he says; it's that low-income students are less likely to be able to afford the SAT-prep classes or expensive extracurricular activities that could make them stronger candidates.

On top of the performance gap between low-income students and their peers, low-income students are less likely to apply to as many colleges or to ones that are highly selective, further limiting their choices, says Sarah E. Turner, a professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia, who is working with Harvard's Mr. Avery on the college-selection research. "This is really a structural problem," she says, "not a transitory problem."

A Hard Message to Deliver

Yale has long offered strong need-based aid. But "even after 40 years, Mr. Brenzel says, "that message is still hard to deliver, because the assumption the schools are out of reach is so deeply entrenched."

The university has taken the usual steps to increase its low-income enrollment, offering more-generous aid and increasing its outreach efforts. And while its share of students receiving Pells dropped slightly from 2004-5 through 2008-9, it has since bounced back, to an estimated 12 percent in 2010-11, according to Mr. Brenzel.

Smith College has been able to maintain a relatively high proportion of Pell Grant students—23.6 percent of undergraduates in 2008-9—in large part because of a campus program for 150 to 200 women who are resuming their college educations as independent students, whose parents' incomes are not considered for financial-aid purposes. That makes them more likely to receive Pell Grants than are dependent students, whose parents' income and assets are considered as resources. Smith's share of Pell Grant students did drop slightly from 2004-5 to 2008-9, partly because enrollment in this program shrank during that period.

The colleges that had the largest increases in the proportion of their students receiving Pell Grants from 2004-5 to 2008-9 attribute their progress largely to improvements in their financial aid and their outreach. Those that have lost ground cite expanding their international, out-of-state, or summer enrollment, among other factors.

Williams College saw the largest jump in its share of students receiving Pells in this period: 4.4 percentage points. "It was a very conscious decision on our part to increase our share of low-income, high-ability students," says Richard L. Nesbitt, the admissions director.

The college took a "multipronged" approach, he says, making changes to its financial-aid policies and increasing its outreach efforts. Williams reduced loans for low-income students about a decade ago, and eliminated them from aid packages in about 2004, he says. That step wasn't publicized as widely as the college's later elimination of loans for all students (a policy it said last year that it would discontinue), but it was something that was highlighted in recruiting needy students.

At the same time, Williams worked with community-based organizations, expanded its fly-in program for low-income students to visit the campus, and began working with QuestBridge, a nonprofit program that connects high-achieving low-income students with colleges.

"Hopefully the message is getting out, not just for Williams, but on colleges with significant endowments, there's access and very strong support for these kids," Mr. Nesbitt says.

The University of Richmond, which has one of the smaller shares of students receiving Pell Grants among the 50 wealthiest colleges, saw one of the larger increases in its share over the five-year period, from 5.5 percent to 8.8 percent.

Unlike some of the most selective private colleges in this group, Richmond offers merit and athletic scholarships as well as need-based aid. Still, about a third of the university's own aid dollars now go to Pell-eligible students, says Nanci Tessier, vice president for enrollment management.

For Richmond, the change really began back in 2002, when the university, which was already need-blind in its admissions, began to meet students' demonstrated need, Ms. Tessier says.

The university has also worked with community-based organizations around the country. In 2005 it began meeting the financial needs of students associated with those groups without using loans. The next year, Richmond started offering the same aid to students from Virginia whose families made $40,000 a year or less. The university has also worked to increase its communication with families, creating materials highlighting its affordability and branding its financial aid as "Richmond in Reach."

No Silver Bullet

Wellesley College, on the other hand, saw one of the larger drops in its share of undergraduates receiving Pells from 2004-5 to 2008-9—a 2.2 percentage-point decrease. The college began making efforts to reduce students' debt levels in 1999, says Jennifer Desjarlais, dean of admission and financial aid. Back then, a larger share of the college's students received Pell Grants.

But over time, fewer of the low-income students whom Wellesley admitted decided to enroll. From what college officials can tell, they lost low-income students to their peer institutions, which had upped the ante by eliminating loans from aid awards. So, in 2008, Wellesley announced that it would eliminate loans for students whose families made less than $60,000 a year. Since then, it has regained its footing among low-income students, Ms. Desjarlais says.

The changes in Harvard's financial aid, which it made in several stages starting in 2004-5, have been among the most aggressive. The university has seen its share of Pell Grant students grow since then, although it has one of the smallest shares among the 50 wealthiest colleges. Harvard focuses on the socioeconomic diversity of the 6,000 or so traditional undergraduates at Harvard College rather than the larger enrollment figure in the chart (see Page A4), which includes the university's extension school, says Sally Clark Donahue, director of financial aid and a senior admissions officer. A larger share of that group of students receives Pell Grants, and that share has also grown over time.

Still, Ms. Donahue says, "I think also, change takes time." After all, when Harvard reaches out to eighth graders, it has to wait years to see if they will consider applying.

She says that a commitment to reach talented low-income students could wind up being expensive: "The success of our outreach will cost us in the long run."

Generous financial-aid programs are expensive, and the colleges offering them know it. In 2010, two of the wealthiest 50, Williams and Dartmouth Colleges, said they would scale back their no-loan aid programs, although the neediest students will not be affected by the changes. Dartmouth will still package loan-free aid for students whose families make $75,000 a year or less, and Williams said its low-income students with typical assets wouldn't be expected to borrow.

Duke University, which has one of the lowest proportions of students receiving Pell Grants among the 50 colleges, has never been able to afford a fully no-loan program, says Alison Rabil, director of financial aid. Instead, the university offers loan-free aid packages to students whose families earn under $40,000 and eliminated parent contributions for families making under $60,000. Those limitations make Duke's policy harder to explain to prospective students, especially those from families just over the $40,000 threshold.

"There's a certain amount of reluctance to borrow on the part of students whose families are first-generation and who may not have parents who have grown up in the States," she says. "If you're choosing between a couple of schools that you feel equally excited about going to, that might make a difference."

Still, that doesn't mean offering no-loan aid is guaranteed to bring in droves of qualified low-income students. Like many of its peers, the California Institute of Technology offers no-loan aid. Its program, started in 2008-9, packages aid without loans for students whose parents make $60,000 or less. But even with that policy, and in a weak economy, Caltech has seen the average family income of its financial-aid applicants increase, says Don Crewell, director of financial aid. "Instead of getting the kind of economic diversity we hoped for," he says, "we're even more elite."

At the University of Virginia, which has one of the smallest proportions of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants among the 50 colleges, geography is a big factor. "It's certainly not for lack of effort," says Greg W. Roberts, dean of admission.

The university eliminated loans for low-income students and aggressively recruits students in less-affluent parts of the state. But, he says, the university has a lot of out-of-state students, who tend to be able to pay full freight, and many of its resident students come from wealthier parts of the state.

Kyle Trowbridge, a Virginia resident who will graduate in May, says he applied to UVa in part because he assumed that he could not afford a private college. Even so, he was surprised to get a full scholarship through the university's Access UVa program, which packages grant aid for low-income students.

He says that he also had preconceptions about UVa as a "fratty" Southern college lacking diversity. "There is this connotation of 'I drive an MG and I pop my collar,'" says Mr. Trowbridge, who now tries to fight that stereotype as a board member of 'Hoos for Open Access, a student group that promotes socioeconomic diversity on the campus.

Bill Witbrodt, director of student financial services at Washington University in St. Louis, faces similar challenges in enrolling more low-income students. For several years, he has telephoned each Pell-eligible student admitted, encouraging them to enroll. And the university has unveiled a no-loan aid program for low-income students. Still, Washington had the lowest proportion of students receiving Pell Grants of all 50 colleges in 2008-9.

Part of the problem seems to be geography, Mr. Witbrodt says: Low-income students admitted from the East or West Coasts tell him they worry about being so far from home. "We have a hard time yielding them," he says. "We have very pleasant telephone conversations, and they say they're interested and they're coming, and they don't."

At other colleges, the concern is less about how to get low-income students to enroll and more about how to continue to support them. The University of Texas at Austin has one of the largest shares of undergraduates getting Pell Grants in this group, 21.4 percent. Austin steers all the institutional, federal, and state aid it can to its neediest students, says Tom Melecki, director of student financial services.

But the federal Academic Competitiveness Grant program will be ended, along with the National Smart Grant Program for science and math students, and Pell Grants might be reduced. And in Texas, two big state grant programs might be eliminated. "We are looking at some fairly draconian cuts," Mr. Melecki says.

Even though the university is pouring more of its own money into financial aid, if all of those cuts go through, that would significantly increase the loan burden on its neediest students.

"My fear is that we will not be able to keep this institution affordable for those high-need students," Mr. Melecki says. "What happens if this become the University of Texas just for rich kids?"