Report Shows Some Schools Having More Success in Enrolling Low-Income Students

Posted By Eliana Osborn on December 21, 2015 at 10:40 am
Report Shows Some Schools Having More Success in Enrolling Low-Income Students
Florida State University, named an Access Improver institution for low-income students by the IHEP

Many schools across the country haven taken an active approach to tackling the obstacles that low-income students face in attending and graduating from college. Some universities like Rutgers University, for example, have focused on the economic realities that prevent low-income students from access to higher education, recently announcing free tuition and discounted tuition rates for low-income students in New Jersey.

In a recent report, the Institute of Higher Education Policy examines how effective schools have been at enrolling low-income students. The report focuses on selective colleges and universities and the number of Pell Grant students they enroll compared to the potential numbers they could enroll. Schools are four-year institutions that receive Title IV funding and mostly award bachelor’s degrees. The potential for Pell enrollment is calculated using the percentage of students admitted each year, median ACT score or equivalent SAT, and the school’s Carnegie classification.

The report highlights schools that are underperforming in their capacity to enroll low-income students, called Potential Contributors, and schools deemed Access Improvers, which are exceeding expectations for their ability to enroll low-income students.

Higher education policy under the Obama administration has been focused on getting more students into college, especially low-income and minority youth.  The IHEP report sheds light on practices making the most differences for these students, so that other schools can follow suit.

Access Improvers

The schools that are successful with low-income students are those that specifically target and recruit them. What’s more, the report points out that these schools have not experienced any serious declines in graduation rates as a result of efforts to improve access for low-income students.

Below are the schools described by the report as Access Improvers, all of which exceed the researchers’ predictions for Pell Enrollment rates:

School Current Pell Enrollment Predicted Pell Enrollment Pell Enrollment Surplus
University of California-Santa Cruz 45.00% 33.00% 12.00%
University of California-Irvine 43.70% 34.20% 9.50%
University of California-Santa Barbara 38.00% 28.80% 9.20%
University of California-Riverside 57.30% 37.30% 20.00%
Indiana Wesleyan University 46.70% 29.60% 17.10%
Stetson University 38.00% 24.10% 13.90%
Grand Valley State University 34.70% 29.20% 5.40%
The University of Tennessee-Knoxville 30.00% 22.30% 7.70%
Florida State University 27.70% 25.20% 2.50%
University of Florida 30.00% 23.60% 6.40%

Source: IHEP

The reports notes that several of the University of California schools demonstrated an awareness of application inequalities, and instead “emphasized the importance of holistic review policies, which allow the institutions to evaluate applicants based on a combination of factors, rather than allowing one criterion, like SAT or ACT scores, to dominate the admissions process.” Also underlying the success of these universities in enrolling low-income students were “campus-wide commitments,” citing “targeted admissions and outreach efforts as the gateway to increasing access.”

Many of the Access Improvers also participated in “deliberate efforts to identify high schools with large proportions of low-income and minority students, visit those schools multiple times a year to host admissions and financial aid workshops, and, in many cases, transport students to campus to introduce them to university life,” says the report. Pointing to a clear understanding that there are a host of obstacles for low-income students, often not present for middle and upper-income families, to overcome in gaining access to information about college.

Potential Contributors

Below are the schools identified by the report as Potential Contributors, currently underperforming in their expected capacity to enroll Pell Grant students:

School Current Pell Enrollment Predicted Pell Enrollment Pell Enrollment Gap
Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus 15.00% 29.70% 14.70%
University of Delaware 13.00% 28.10% 15.10%
Indiana University-Bloomington 20.00% 28.40% 8.40%
University of Alabama 19.70% 30.30% 10.60%
Purdue University-Main Campus 19.70% 27.70% 8.00%
James Madison University 13.30% 24.10% 10.80%
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University 15.00% 22.50% 7.50%
San Diego State University 31.30% 45.10% 13.80%
Towson University 21.70% 38.70% 17.10%
Texas Tech University 25.30% 35.30% 10.00%

Source: IHEP

Representatives of Purdue University and Indiana University-Bloomington cite budget constraints, lack of official policies for promoting access, and out-of-state enrollments as three of the biggest obstacles for these schools to improve enrollment rates of low-income students.

According to the report, at Purdue, a representative also expressed concerns that Indiana’s high school graduates “are not as prepared to be as successful in college as we would like them to be.”  Postsecondary institutions in Indiana, says the report, “have more seats than qualified in-state students to fill them,” which is why, at Purdue, 38% of the student body are nonresidents, “to meet enrollment and revenue targets.”

Being qualified to attend a flagship school isn’t enough, according to the report.  Even with grants, scholarships, and loans, the expense is simply too great.  Satellite campuses or other branches of the main college often have lower costs, making them an attractive option for low-income students.Other reasons for colleges having few low-income students may vary and not be entirely preventable.  For example,

Other reasons for colleges having few low-income students may vary and not be entirely preventable.  For example, Texas Tech notes their location as a deterrent to students who may not have their own transportation.  Schools must place a recruitment priority on low-income students to make sure they are reaching all potential candidates in their states.

Lastly, though the study focused on selective colleges, attending a highly selective college might not be the best choice for a low-income student, even if she is accepted.  Research noted by Inside Higher Education finds that high-performing students who “apply to less-selective colleges, they’re getting accepted into an honors college, receiving merit scholarships and getting other special treatment.”  More than money and name cache, students need to fully research the best school for their individual needs.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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