Public Colleges Backslide on Access, Report Says

October 26, 2017

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With income inequality in the headlines, colleges are playing up their role as engines of opportunity. But a new report says some of those institutions, including Stony Brook U. (pictured), part of the State U. of New York system, now admit a larger share of rich students than they did 20 years ago.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about higher education’s importance as an engine of equality — and how it sometimes serves as an engine of inequality, due to imbalances in access and success for students from lower-income backgrounds.

The latter argument gathers more force through a new report that finds nearly two-thirds of selective public colleges and universities enroll fewer lower-income students than they did two decades ago. The report also finds that many of the same institutions are enrolling more students from the top income brackets.

The report, released on Thursday by New America, analyzed data from the Equality of Opportunity Project’s Mobility Score Card. It found that 217 out of 381 public institutions in the data set admitted 4.6 percent fewer students, on average, from families in the bottom 40 percent of income from 1999 to 2013. Nearly two-thirds of the institutions in the data set admitted 5.4 percent more students, on average, from the top 20 percent in family income over the same period.

The analysis arrives at a time when inequality has become a hot topic in academe, with many critics urging colleges across the spectrum to increase access for needy students. There’s little evidence that those urgings are having a widespread effect. Prince­ton University recently grabbed headlines for increasing the share of its students eligible for Pell Grants to 22 percent this fall, triple what it was about a decade ago. But the percentage of students from the lowest income quintile at most Ivy League institutions remains small, and largely flat, according to the Mobility Score Card data.

Public colleges have always had an access mission, and for the most part they fulfill it. Community colleges and state comprehensive universities continue to educate most American students. But about two-thirds of the 32 public flagship universities included in the data set enrolled a wealthier student body than they did two decades ago, and nearly 200 other public institutions did so as well.

‘America’s Great Working-Class Colleges’

Some public colleges are especially efficient at raising their students from the bottom of the income ladder toward the top — "America’s great working-class colleges," as The New York Times styled them in an analysis in January.

The rise in affluent students captured in the New America analysis correlates with falling state support, and an era of increasing tuition dependence for public higher education. But as the analysis also notes, many public colleges have also increased the amount of merit aid they give to non-needy students. The report cites the University of Alabama, which distributed more than $100 million in non-need-based aid in 2014-15, up from about $12 million in 2001-2.

What happens when the colleges best able to elevate the fortunes of their graduates enroll fewer of the students who need elevating most? Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York system, showed up near the top of the Times’s analysis of public colleges that did the best at raising students from the bottom 40 percent of earners into the top 60 percent.

But, as the New America report notes, the share of students attending the university from the bottom 40 percent of family incomes fell from 34 percent in 1999 to 25 percent in 2013. Over the same period, the share of students attending from the top 20 percent of family incomes rose from 33 percent to 40 percent.

Braden J. Hosch, assistant vice president for institutional research, planning, and effectiveness at Stony Brook, said that the New America report doesn’t put the data in context and is misleading. While students’ median family income has risen at Stony Brook, he added, it still has one of the lowest median family incomes among its public peers in the Association of American Universities.

Data provided by Stony Brook show that the percentage of its students who are eligible for Pell Grants has declined slightly, from about 37 percent in 2003-4 to about 33 percent in 2015-16, but the university said that was due, in part, to a decline in the number of new high-school graduates in the state.

Lee Gardner writes about the management of colleges and universities, higher-education marketing, and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @_lee_g, or email him at