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.

Three colleges explain how they raised enrollments of low-income students.

When I wrote last month that only about a quarter of the 125-plus colleges in a consortium devoted to increasing the enrollment of low-income students had actually done so in 2020, I heard from a PR guy at one of them. Could I highlight, he asked, some of institutions that “did what they said they were going to do”?

At first I dismissed the idea. In trying to hold people and organizations accountable, I don’t generally consider pats on the back for living up to your own pledge to be as newsworthy as explaining how and why efforts fall short. But I do appreciate the opportunity to showcase models that other institutions might emulate, whether or not they are part of that college consortium, called the American Talent Initiative, or ATI. So sure, let’s look at what happens when institutions are, in the words of George Sopko at Colby College, “really committed.”

It’s no surprise that increased spending on financial aid is key. But a host of other practices, several of which don’t necessarily cost a lot, can make a difference, too.

I spoke with officials at Colby and two of the 30 other ATI members that hadn’t backslid on enrolling Pell Grant-eligible students in the fall of 2020. The three are pretty different from one another. Colby is a selective, wealthy private college in Maine; Susquehanna University is a less-wealthy private institution in Pennsylvania; and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a public flagship. Here’s what I learned.

Beyond the money itself, conveying to students that there’s financial support to enroll can make a big difference. Urbana-Champaign does that explicitly with its Illinois Commitment, proclaiming its promise of “Four Years. Free Tuition” to all in-state students from families with incomes under $67,000. The university outlines “four simple steps” to qualify. “Before students even apply,” says Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions, they can see that online.

The Colby Commitment, which promises to meet 100 percent of low-income students’ costs without requiring loans, sends a similar message. The students are expected to pay only $1,800 a year by working a campus job and contributing at least $1,650 from summer earnings. For those with family incomes above $65,000, there’s a user-friendly college-cost calculator that generates estimates based on students’ answers to six basic financial questions, available in English and Spanish. That way families can see that “Colby is within their reach,” says Matt Proto, vice president and chief institutional advancement officer.

Susquehanna, for its part, says economic diversity has always been part of its culture — and students and families know that reputation, said the president, Jonathan Green. “We were founded to create access,” he told me last week.

Colby now spends $52 million a year on financial aid, nearly double what it was spending in 2013-14. Over roughly the same period, the college’s proportion of Pell-eligible students has doubled, to about 16 percent. At Illinois, spending on financial aid has increased tenfold, to about $100 million, since 2006, and more than 20 percent of students are Pell-eligible. The ATI commitment in 2019 was the university’s way of “putting our money where our mouth is,” Borst says. For Susquehanna, financial aid is a heavy lift: More than 40 percent of its $139-million overall budget is devoted to need-based aid. And more than 20 percent of its students are Pell-eligible.

Making students feel welcome matters a lot. Susquehanna hosts a mixer for faculty and staff members who were the first in their families to attend college to socialize with students from similar backgrounds. The university has also revamped burdensome administrative processes, Green said, “so the only thing hard about college is the curriculum.”

All students benefit from special catalysts to career development. Colby’s Davis Connects program, for example, guarantees every student at least one internship, research opportunity, or global experience “regardless of personal and financial networks.” Granted, not every college has the resources to provide a global experience — never mind the employer and alumni connections to offer interesting, paid internships. But most colleges have professors who could use a hand with their research (and maybe even a little money to pay students for that work).

And one final note (for now) on the American Talent Initiative. The goal of the five-year-old effort is, by 2025, to enroll 50,000 additional low-income students at any of 334 institutions nationally with a consistent six-year graduation rate of at least 70 percent. ATI members, who make up about a third of those institutions, are supposed to lead the way. Yet until last week, I hadn’t known (or asked) what the starting point was. Now I have a better feel for how big of a lift the goal is, thanks to some data the group has posted here. When ATI began, the 334 colleges together enrolled 590,404 Pell-eligible students. So an additional 50,000 would be an 8.5-percent increase.

I guess we can all have our own opinions on how ambitious that is. In the fall of 2018, the latest point at which we can get data for all 334 institutions, the total Pell enrollment stood at 611,273, so decent progress. ATI members were increasing even faster (expanding their Pell populations by nearly 5 percent, compared with 3.5 percent for the larger group). But since then, the ATI members as a group have dropped back to where they were in 2015. Meanwhile, 2025 gets closer every day.

The connection nontraditional students need.

Most of the guests on my Innovation That Matters podcast came to their work in promoting equity in higher ed at least partly for personal reasons. For Melvin Hines Jr., founder of the tutoring and coaching company Upswing, that motivation spans two generations.

Upswing’s focus is on rural colleges, especially those that serve lots of adult and online students. Hines, who grew up in south Georgia, shared with me that his acceptance to the state’s public flagship was so unusual that it made his hometown newspaper — and he told me that he’s long chafed at the idea that “where you are born and where you live dictate so much of your lot in life.” As a child, he often accompanied his parents as they commuted long hours to complete their college degrees. A business built around coaching rural, largely nontraditional students was the natural evolution of his personal observations, experiences, and passion.

Upswing’s market focus is what first interested me. As Hines said in our interview for the podcast, “Nontraditional students don’t get access to the same resources that everyone else does,” even though they’re usually paying the same tuition. I was also intrigued by the company’s coach-matching tech platform, which makes it easy for, say, a 32-year-old working mother to choose a peer tutor she feels is most likely to understand her. “People want that familiarity,” Hines told me.

When he started building his business, Hines, who is Black, encountered a barrier that many entrepreneurs of color have also shared with me: difficulty raising money. I marvel at how Hines and others keep going and succeed anyway — and I wonder what the ed-tech investors now deploying billions in capital are going to do about it.

All six episodes of the Innovation That Matters podcast series, on topics like how best to distribute emergency aid and what kind of mentoring prepares first-gen students to land “strong jobs,” can be found here or on the podcast app of your choice. I had fun sharing the stories of change-makers working to improve equity in higher education, and I’d love to hear what you think of these fresh approaches.

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.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks