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In recent years, thanks in part to increasing pressure from advocates for admissions reform, a growing number of selective colleges have come to see social mobility as part of their mission. Princeton University, for example, raised its percentage of undergraduates with Pell Grants more than 40 percent between 2015 and 2020. In 2019, a quarter of Princeton’s freshman class was Pell-eligible, which was the same percentage as that of Rutgers University at New Brunswick.
Princeton’s a long way from its New Jersey neighbor in terms of numbers, however. The state flagship enrolled more than 10,000 Pell-eligible undergraduates in 2020, while Princeton — whose prestige rests in part on its exclusivity — enrolled just over 1,000. Social-mobility impact is not just a question of how much of a college’s freshman class is Pell-eligible; it’s also about how big that class is.
That’s what is doubly damning about the 20 worst colleges in the nation for Pell enrollment: They have very low Pell shares and very small enrollments. As a result, they enrolled fewer freshmen with Pell Grants, combined, than Rutgers did by itself in 2020.
Fairfield University, which had the lowest freshman Pell share among four-year colleges in 2020, enrolled just 84 Pell-eligible students that year, which was less than half the 199 legacies its alumni magazine bragged about it enrolling this past fall. A mere 7.5 percent of Fairfield’s freshmen were Pell-eligible, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. The share of all Pell-eligible freshmen at four-year colleges nationwide is nearly 34 percent, more than four times the share at Fairfield.
Every spot in the worst 20 colleges for Pell enrollment is taken by a private college, many of which enroll students from across the nation — just not many poor ones. They don’t enroll poor students from their home states either. In Louisiana, 41 percent of freshmen were Pell-eligible in 2020, but at Tulane just 8 percent were, perhaps because 90 percent of freshmen at Tulane came from out of state. Or consider the fourth-worst college in the county for Pell enrollment, Oberlin, where 94 percent of the freshmen were from out of state.
Auburn University and the College of William & Mary tied for the worst spot among public institutions for Pell shares. It’s a familiar position for William & Mary, which has had the worst Pell share in the nation for a public institution six out of the 10 most recent years. It’s not alone in the state. In fact, six of Virginia’s universities rank in the bottom 20 public institutions.
One explanation for Virginia’s dismal numbers is that it is a wealthy state with a high median income, which translates into relatively fewer students who qualify for Pell Grants. Given that public colleges rightly tend to prioritize in-state students, it’s not fair to expect all public universities to serve equivalent shares of Pell-eligible students. California’s and Florida’s public universities are often lauded for the high number and share of students with Pell Grants they enroll, but it is also the case that a larger number and share of students in those states are eligible for Pell than in Virginia or Vermont. Nationally, 34 percent of freshmen who were enrolled in 2020 at four-year colleges received a Pell Grant, but in California 39 percent did and in Florida 40 percent did, while only 27 percent did in Virginia and 22 percent did in Vermont.
So then what if we compare a public university’s Pell share not to the nation but to its home state? If we divide an institution’s Pell share by the state average and re-rank public colleges, five new institutions make it into the bottom 20. Georgia looks even worse, with half of the six worst public institutions for low-income enrollment. Georgia Tech takes over the No. 1 spot, the University of Georgia moves from 19th to fourth, and Georgia College & State University moves from 24th to sixth.
Over all, however, most of the worst performers by Pell share remain the worst whether you base it on overall Pell share or on Pell share relative to its state context. Four out of six Virginia universities remain in the bottom 20. Virginia might be wealthier on average than many other states, but it has plenty of college students who are eligible for Pell Grants. It’s just that most of them do not go to the state’s most prestigious institutions.
There is good news in Virginia, however. William & Mary recently announced that it would raise its share of in-state students with Pell Grants to 20 percent over the next few years. Last year the Virginia General Assembly provided $25 million for a new competitive-grant program to enhance efforts to recruit and retain students eligible for the Pell Grant. The grant was sparked in part by a pair of reports that Education Reform Now released in 2021, highlighting the state of de facto segregation in Virginia and low graduation rates among students with Pell Grants.
Pell enrollment is not a perfect measure of a college’s commitment and contribution to social mobility. Turning Pell enrollment percentages into a target may have created a barbell effect at some universities, which enroll a decent share of low-income students and large share of wealthy students, with almost no students from the middle class. Pell shares have gone up, but at little cost to rich families.
Worse yet is treating high Pell enrollment as a good in isolation from outcomes. As Michael Itzkowitz has shown in his work at Third Way, enrolling lots of Pell-eligible students who do not go on to earn a degree or who get jobs that pay them no more than if they had never been to college doesn’t help those students or our society. Respectable Pell shares are necessary but not sufficient for a college to be an engine for social mobility.
The reason we must highlight poor performers on Pell enrollment is to inspire them to do better. In 2017 The New York Times ran a feature on income inequality in college enrollment and highlighted universities and colleges where more students came from the top 1 percent of income than from the bottom 60 percent. The piece, which used data from the freshman class that entered in 2009 and analysis from Opportunity Insights, publicly shamed the 10 institutions with the worst income inequality. Every single one of them improved their Pell shares. Colorado College and Washington University in St. Louis more than doubled theirs.
Plenty of those colleges still have a ways to go, but as a group they increased their Pell-eligible enrollments by more than 70 percent. Publicly demanding more of colleges that pay little to no taxes and receive many millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded financial aid is a strategy that works. In the next few years, let’s see if Fairfield, Oberlin, and other institutions on the list of worst performers will start charting their own improvements.