WashU, the Least Economically Diverse Top College, Seeks to Change

Lauren Chase, one of the student leaders in our U/Fused network was quoted in a New York Times article about Washington University. As it stands, WashU is the least economically diverse of colleges near the top. She speaks of the struggles low-income students face and the isolation they feel "when their friends are all going out to dinner three times a week, or their student group is ordering expensive apparel every year, or their professors expect them to be able to buy expensive books each semester.”

The full article is below.

The leaders of Washington University in St. Louis have decided that it has a distinction they no longer want: the nation’s least economically diverse top college.

Only 6 percent of undergraduates at Wash. U., as it’s known, receive federal Pell grants, which typically go to students in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution. The university rejects dozens of qualified low- and middle-income students every year rather than giving them the financial aid they would need.

Now Wash. U. is planning a major expansion of aid, to be announced Friday, university officials say. It will commit to more than doubling the share of undergraduates with Pell grants, to at least 13 percent, by 2020. That percentage is fairly typical today for a college with its resources.

“We feel we have an important responsibility to serve talented people, independent of their background,” Mark Wrighton, the chancellor, told me, noting that his father was an enlisted man in the Navy and that his mother also didn’t go to college. “I’ve lived the life I’d like to encourage for other people.”

Washington University in St. Louis is planning a major expansion of financial aid. It will double the share of undergraduates with Pell grants, to at least 13 percent, by 2020.

The university’s move is the latest sign that higher education is changing on this issue. Top colleges — the ones with the most resources and highest graduation rates — are already diverse in multiple ways, admitting both men and women as well as students from every race, religion and geographic region. But many colleges still bring to mind an old joke about Harvard: that its idea of diversity involves having a rich kid from California room with a rich kid from New York.

Research has found that most low-income high school seniors with the grades and test scores to thrive at one of the 250 most selective colleges do not attend one. They instead enroll at colleges with far fewer resources — and many never graduate. Meanwhile, the income gap between college graduates and everyone else has reached a record high.

Higher education leaders have long claimed they want to admit large numbers of top low-income students. But most haven’t made good on those claims. More are now starting to.

The University of Chicago, also a laggard in this area, announced a big expansion of financial aid in October. The College Board and Michael Bloomberg’s foundation have both named economic diversity as top priorities. The state of Delaware is likewise making a push, as is the Obama administration.

Officials at Washington say they were moved to act by the attention the issue is receiving and by their discomfort with where they stand. Among the 100 colleges nationwide with a four-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent, none have a smaller share of Pell students than Washington, according to a recent Upshot analysis.

Lauren Chase, a sophomore who helps run a student group pushing for more diversity, said lower-income students often felt isolated — “when their friends are all going out to dinner three times a week, or their student group is ordering expensive apparel every year, or their professors expect them to be able to buy expensive books each semester.” Higher-income students, for their part, get a skewed view of the world.

Administrators say they have instead been devoting resources to turning Wash. U. into a top university, by hiring faculty, building new facilities and taking other steps. And the university’s rise has certainly been impressive, from a largely regional university a few decades ago to one that draws students from all over. Times Higher Education, in London, recently rankedit as the world’s 42nd-best university.

Of course, other colleges that have risen in prominence, like Rice and N.Y.U., enroll many more lower-income students. But whatever led to the current situation, administrators say they plan to change it.

The new program will cost about $25 million a year, on top of an existing financial aid budget of $100 million and a total campus budget (excluding the medical school) of $600 million. To pay for the program, the university has begun raising money from donors, Holden Thorp, the provost, said. Other colleges that have expanded aid say the programs have sometimes led to a surge in fund-raising.

The university also plans to cut costs, potentially forgoing some hiring or construction. And the university will reduce its spending on so-called merit aid — scholarships to recruit affluent students considering other top colleges. The last bucket is relatively small: The college spends 6 percent of its aid budget on merit aid.

One advantage is that Washington is among the few elite universities in a region stretching across Missouri, southern Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. Students who are the first in their families to leave home for college often prefer to remain within driving distance.

Beth Breger, who runs Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, which helps top low-income students go to college, noted that the two LEDA students at Wash. U. are both from the St. Louis area. She also said she was eager to send more students, given the quality of student advising there.

It’s still not clear whether Wash. U. will manage to catch its peers in economic diversity anytime soon, because others are also increasing aid. But administrators emphasized that they viewed their new Pell target as a minimum.

“Most of us who work in higher education — the main reason we get up and go to work in the morning is that, despite all its problems, American higher education is still the primary engine of opportunity in this country,” Mr. Thorp, the provost, said. “And Washington University can’t take its place as a great university unless we’ve been doing our part.”

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