Pell Yes

Unlike those Brand X college rankings, those published by Washington Monthly have long made schools’ willingness and ability to enroll and graduate low-income students an important factor. Students who are eligible for means-tested federal Pell Grants are a good group to look at in that respect. In an important analysis of WaMo data in the current issue of the magazine, Mamie Voight of the Institute for Higher Education Policy and Colleen Campbell of the Association of Community College Trustees identify colleges that do and don’t enroll the percentage of Pell recipients you would expect from their selectivity criteria. Turns out there are specific policies schools (and also state governments) adopt that can affect these numbers significantly:

Indiana’s flagship schools come up short on Pell enrollment. Why? An administrator for enrollment management at Purdue University lamented that Indiana’s high school graduates “are not as prepared to be as successful in college as we would like them to be,” especially in math. This has led the university to recruit large numbers of nonresidents to meet enrollment and revenue targets. Leadership at Indiana University-Bloomington cited similar efforts to recruit out-of-state students, noting the challenge of balancing “academic quality, diversity, and affordability.”

It’s certainly true that these schools have aggressively recruited out-of-state and international students— who, not coincidentally, typically pay upward of $28,000 in annual tuition, far higher than Hoosier residents. In-state enrollment at Purdue declined by 700 students over the past decade, while international enrollments grew by 690. Non-Hoosiers—including these international students—now make up 43 percent of West Lafayette’s student body. At Bloomington, the international student population has increased by nearly 600 since 2004, the fastest growing of any student group on campus.

There is no reason to believe that the number of qualified Indiana residents has declined so dramatically in just ten years. Among the 20,000 low-income high school graduates in Indiana, these premier colleges could certainly each recruit a few hundred more talented students with the capacity to succeed in their rigorous curriculums. Proof that this is possible is available right in the state: Bloomington, with a median ACT score of 25, chose to enroll 618 fewer needy students than it might have; Indiana Wesleyan University, with a median ACT score of 24, chose to enroll 260 more.

By contrast, certain states, principally California and Florida, have made a policy decision to encourage active recruitment of low-income students, as have some individual public and private colleges.

These colleges deliberately target high schools with large proportions of low-income and minority students. They transport students to campus to introduce them to university life. They review applications broadly, looking not just at students’ SAT or ACT scores but at their grades, class rank, work histories, and obstacles they’ve overcome. And, once those students are on campus, they provide the extra support, from counseling to tutoring, they sometimes need to get to graduation.

If policymakers and higher education leaders mean half of what they say about equal opportunity, the improvements in enrollment by Pell Grant recipients we’ve seen in some places should become the rule rather than the exception.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.