I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Top colleges continue to miss goals for enrolling more low-income students. Now what?

Being back at square one rarely feels good. In the case of the American Talent Initiative, a five-year-old effort to enroll, by 2025, an additional 50,000 low-income students at colleges with high graduation rates, it’s especially dismaying.

New data tell the unfortunate story: Even before the disruptions from Covid-19, collective progress by the effort’s 130 member institutions had stalled. They fell so much further behind enrolling Pell Grant-eligible students during the pandemic that, as a group, they are now essentially back to where they were when ATI began.

When I wrote in early 2020 about the leveling off — after early gains — I vented about the absurdity of a project and public pledge to increase a group of colleges’ Pell-student enrollments while, for almost half of them (52 of 120), the opposite was happening.

Now at least it appears that ATI members have formally recommitted themselves to the cause. And this time they’ll have to prove it not just by being part of a group but by adopting specific enrollment goals. The result: 125 institutions are in, and eight that were once in are out, at least for the time being.

Below I share more on who’s in, who’s out, and what that might mean. But first, a quick rundown on the latest numbers. (For a deeper dive into the data and some highlights on which institutions are making the most progress, check out this 2021 Third Annual Progress Report from Ithaka S+R, the consultancy that is working with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program to help manage the project.)

  • Fall 2020 numbers for the 115 ATI members that shared enrollment data show 269,473 Pell-eligible students, a one-year drop of 7,166. At public colleges, the biggest declines were among first-time and transfer students; at private colleges, continuing students.
  • Even amid the pandemic, 31 member colleges did increase their Pell-student enrollments between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020. The rest (that shared data) did not.

Where does this leave an effort that was once lauded as a way of “getting colleges to live up to their ideals”? Enrolling 50,000 more low-income students remains the goal, although, to clarify, ATI’s members never expected to be the only institutions working to achieve it. From the start, the idea was to get those students enrolled in any of 334 institutions with a graduation rate of at least 70 percent. The hope was that colleges that became ATI members would “make disproportionate progress,” as Ithaka S+R’s Martin Kurzweil put it, and then inspire and put pressure on the rest.

But consortia with collective goals don’t succeed when most of the members aren’t pulling their weight. So this spring, after what Kurzweil described as a “moment of truth” for ATI members, the project rebooted itself. With a new campaign called Accelerating Opportunity, it has now established specific goals for every ATI member, depending on how many low-income students they currently enroll.

Are you wondering (as I was) who’s agreeing to what? Ithaka S+R would not name names, but it did give me some sense of the numbers. Based on 2019-20 data, 32 members enrolled fewer than 15 percent Pell-eligible students, 45 enrolled 15 to 20 percent, and 48 had more than 20 percent Pell-eligible students.

The pledges weren’t for everyone. The 125 colleges that remain in the program can be found here. Eight chose not to continue with ATI: the College of Wooster, Denison University, Elizabethtown College, Penn State, the University of Denver, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest University, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. For them and any other institutions that qualify, said Kurzweil, “the door is always open.”

I wish I could have been a fly on the wall (or a lurker on Zoom?) during the deliberations on the future of ATI. Kurzweil is a circumspect guy, so it’s hard to know how serious the risk was that the organizers or the funder, Bloomberg Philanthropies, would just yank the plug on the whole damned thing. But I do get the sense that the project’s leaders debated whether to keep going when so many members were lagging. “It had the potential to be rancorous,” Kurzweil told me, but it was actually more positive. And colleges had a chance to demonstrate their good faith: “We invited the presidents to literally sign their commitments,” he said.

Would getting specific commitments from each institution have been a sounder approach at the outset? Kurzweil dismissed that notion. “I think we needed to build up to this,” he said. After all, he added, it took a lot to get the first 30 colleges even to sign on to the collective goal.

Of course, goals (signed or not) are still just words. And while it’s notable that individual members are now making specific — if not public — commitments, it’s still anybody’s guess whether this new approach will change outcomes, particularly for the laggards.

More broadly, I still think higher ed would benefit from greater transparency about those outcomes, just as it would by learning more details about two other national efforts with similar goals.

One of those is the University Innovation Alliance, whose progress I wrote about in June. The other is the newer Powered by Publics, a multifaceted effort begun in 2019 by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities to produce hundreds of thousands of new college graduates by reducing gaps in completion rates by race, ethnicity, income, and first-generation status. As part of that project, APLU is tracking not only enrollments of Pell-eligible students at 125 participating colleges, but also other metrics such as retention and graduation, all broken down by demographics.

I’m eager to see what data APLU will release in its first real progress report, expected out this fall. That information could at least hint at their progress in reducing equity gaps. I’ve been told not to expect to see university names attached, but I hope the report will give us a sense of how many institutions are improving, on which fronts, and by how much. That would be a start.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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