Grinnell College’s Alumni Recitation Hall

In my last few columns, I have written about the recent efforts of Washington University in St. Louis to become more socioeconomically diverse. If Wash U. officials want to know more about what it takes for an elite private liberal arts college to excel in this pursuit, they should look no further than Grinnell College in Iowa.

Grinnell has long been committed to enrolling low-income students. Currently, nearly a quarter of the school’s students are recipients of Pell Grants, which is the federal government’s primary source of aid for financially needy students. The college not only welcomes financially needy students but provides them with enough financial and academic support to help them succeed at the school.

Grinnell is “need blind” in admissions, meaning that it doesn’t take financial considerations into account when admitting students. It also pledges to meet the full financial need of students with grants and a relatively small amount of federal loans.

These policies have proven to be extremely expensive for a college that admits such a large share of low-income students, enrolls far fewer “full-pay” students than many of its peers, and generates considerably less in philanthropic support that can be spent on need-based financial aid. Worried that these practices were not sustainable, the college’s Board of Trustees created a stir on campus when it considered abandoning the institution’s need-blind policy in 2012.

Related: Q&A with Leah Merrifield: A leading voice for socioeconomic diversity at Wash U.

Many colleges, under such financial stress, would likely have reduced the share of low-income students they enroll. Not Grinnell. Instead, the school’s administrators have bolstered the college’s financial aid budget, primarily by boosting the number of international students who can pay full freight and strengthening its alumni fundraising efforts, according to Joe Bagnoli, Grinnell’s dean of admissions and financial aid.

In addition, the college plans to reduce its spending on merit aid. Currently, about 15 percent of Grinnell freshmen receive scholarships from the school but have no financial need. “Merit aid has helped Grinnell both attract highly qualified students and generate revenue for the purpose of underwriting the costs associated with our commitments to diversity and access,” Bagnoli recently told me over email.

“By building stronger market demand for the tremendous program Grinnell offers, we plan to begin reducing our investment in merit aid without compromise to the academic profile of our student body and without losses to student revenue,” he wrote. “It’s a delicate balance (we cannot too quickly remove merit aid before achieving a more competitive market position) but we are optimistic that we can recover current investments in merit aid while continuing to attract an outstanding and diverse student body.”

Pleased with the results of these changes, the board recently agreed to keep Grinnell need-blind for at least another three years. “It’s been a long climb,” Bagnoli said during a separate interview in November. “But we are increasingly convinced that being need-blind is a critical element of our institutional identity.”

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

Where does Grinnell’s commitment to socioeconomic diversity come from? Officials there say it is in keeping with the college’s history of social activism.

The school was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by social reformers and abolitionists. One of the institution’s major benefactors—Josiah Bushnell Grinnell—was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, which helped transport slaves to states in which they could gain their freedom.

Nearly a century later, Grinnell alumni, such as Harry Hopkins, were key architects of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

Today, the college lists “social responsibility” as one of its three core values. “The students we choose to admit are an expression of those commitments,” Bagnoli said.

Related: Five things to know about Wash U.’s plan to become more socioeconomically diverse

Grinnell has proven adept at finding low-income students who have the academic qualifications to succeed at the school. In addition to its own recruiting, the college works with outside organizations that identify financially needy students who have the potential to thrive at top schools. For example, the college has partnerships with the following organizations:

  • The Posse Foundation, which sends groups of low-income and minority students to the college from New Orleans and Washington, D.C.
  • Questbridge, a nonprofit that acts as a matchmaker between low-income students and elite colleges.
  • Chicago Scholars, which brings to the college “academically driven, first generation college students from under-resourced communities.”

Grinnell also flies first-generation and other underrepresented prospective students to the school twice a year so they can see and experience the campus for themselves.

Related: Why Sen. Lamar Alexander is wrong about college affordability

Recruiting high-achieving, low-income students will remain a priority at Grinnell, according to its president, Raynard S. Kington. “Colleges nationwide recruit high-achieving, low-income students from magnet schools and other special programs that identify talent. That’s good, and we need to do a lot more, including recruiting high-achievers trapped in under-performing schools,” he said. “Right now, this country needs all the brainpower we can find. We need leaders with different experiences and points of view. And we don’t think students’ ability to get a first-rate college education and contribute to society should be limited by their family resources.”

[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.