5 Things to Know About Wash U.’s Plan to Become More Socioeconomically Diverse

As I wrote in my last column, Washington University in St. Louis is in the midst of a five-year plan to become more socioeconomically diverse. The university will spend at least $25 million a year for five years to increase the share of its students receiving Pell Grants, the federal government’s primary source of aid for financially needy students, to 13 percent. The money will go to increasing the school’s need-based financial aid budget.

Now that the university is 10 months into the plan, I decided to take a closer look at how it’s progressing. At the start of my examination, I found myself asking the following five questions. After doing some digging around, I am going to take a shot at answering them.

Is this a sincere effort to become more socioeconomically diverse, or do Wash U. officials simply want to stop being identified by national media outlets as the least socioeconomically diverse elite college in the country?

I think the answer is a little bit of both. When Holden Thorp, the university’s provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, interviewed for his job in January 2013, he told the search committee that making Wash U. more socioeconomically diverse should be one of the university’s top priorities. Once he was hired, Thorp, who previously served as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, began to develop a plan for enrolling more low-income students. But he acknowledged in an interview with me that negative press from The New York Times “accelerated things” and made it easier for him to sell the plan to other school officials and members of the university’s Board of Trustees.

Related: Washington University’s plan to enroll more low-income students moves forward

The question that remains is whether Wash U. will go further once it has met its goal and is no longer under the media spotlight. That’s a question that worries Shaun Kai Ern Ee, a junior who belongs to WU for Undergraduate Socio-Economic Diversity.

“When the press is no longer as bad, and we’re not number 50 out of 50, how much pressure is that going to create on the administration?” Ee recently asked in an interview with Student Life, Wash U.’s student newspaper. “The question then becomes how can you make sure that this commitment is one that’s lasting? And I think that one is one I do not necessarily have an answer to as much as I wish I did.”

What is the current socioeconomic breakdown of the student body?

Unfortunately, we don’t have all the data we need to answer the question because colleges are not required to disclose such information. The best estimates of the socioeconomic breakdown come from a recent survey that Student Life conducted of 743 students. According to the survey, about three-quarters of respondents came from families making $100,000 or more. Nearly half (45%) had family incomes of $200,000 or more. And a whopping 15 percent came from families making $500,000 or greater (which is a larger share than those with family incomes under $50,000). In addition, about a third of students reported having attended private high schools—which is more than triple the national rate. While these data are not perfect, it’s safe to say that Wash U., like many other elite private institutions, disproportionally serves affluent students.

Related: Which college will replace Wash U. as the least socioeconomically diverse in the country?

How is Wash U. going to attract more low-income students? Is the plan leading the school to make big changes in its recruiting practices?

According to Wash U. administrators and student activists, the plan will not require major changes. Many high-achieving low-income students already apply to Wash U. each year, but they are not accepted because the school says it cannot afford to support them. In other words, the university is “need-aware,” meaning that it takes financial considerations into account during the admissions process. Because the plan calls for increasing the annual student aid budget by $25 million for five years in a row, the university will now have the money it needs to admit more of these students.

Related: Meet the financial-aid program that requires colleges to supplement, not supplant, federal aid

That’s not to say Wash U. isn’t making some changes. Admissions officers are visiting a more diverse set of high schools, particularly in St. Louis. They are working with organizations such as Say Yes to Education and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America to identify low-income students around the country who qualify for admission to the university. They have also started a program, College Prep, to work with low-income students in St. Louis, preparing them to attend highly selective private institutions such as Wash U.

Does the university plan to become “need-blind”?

Many of Wash U.’s competitors are “need-blind,” meaning that they do not reject students simply because of their lack of finances. But Wash U. has no plans to join them. University officials told me that the school doesn’t have the money to support all of the qualified low-income students who apply, and that they would rather admit fewer low-income students and meet their full financial need rather than admit a higher number and leave some students only partially funded. Their response is somewhat perplexing, given that the university’s endowment was $7.2 billion as of June 2014, although a lot of those funds appear to be tied up in the medical school.

Related: Changing the incentives for colleges to enroll and graduate low-income students

Student activists, for their part, aren’t pushing the university to go need-blind at the moment. “That’s on our backburner,” Ee told me during a recent visit I made to the campus. “I wouldn’t say it’s something that we have completely forgotten about. But given the administration’s stance, my view is that we would be running into a brick wall if we pursued it.”

What does this mean for “merit aid”?

As I wrote in my last column, Wash U. has long provided generous amounts of “merit aid” to high-achieving students as part of a broader strategy to build its prestige and propel itself up the rankings. Now that the university is trying to increase its socioeconomic diversity, the school is scaling back on the amount of merit aid it provides and spending funds instead on need-based aid. The university, for example, has stopped participating in the National Merit Scholarship Program. “This is a hot school,” says Thorp. “So these outstanding students don’t all have to get partial merit awards in order to want to come here.”

But don’t expect Wash U. to do away with merit aid altogether. The university won’t unilaterally disarm as long as competitors, such as Duke University, continue to offer merit aid to attract top students.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Stephen Burd

Stephen Burd is a senior policy analyst in the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.