A recent article published in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE) disclosed a disappointing trend in the number of low-income students attending the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. The JBHE article contrasted the huge growth that many universities’ endowments have experienced in recent years with steadily decreasing numbers of enrollees receiving federal Pell Grants. Pell Grants, which are typically awarded to students whose family incomes are below $40,000 per year, are normally understood to be a fairly good barometer for gauging the number of low-income students enrolling in the nations colleges. Across the nation’s top 30 universities and top 30 colleges, the overwhelming majority of schools have shown a marked decrease in the number of students receiving Pell Grants over the past 20 years.
Colgate, as one of the nation’s elite liberal arts schools, is included in the data presented in the article and follows the trends reported by the JBHE. In 1983, 12.3 percent of Colgate students received a federal Pell Grant. By 2006, that number had decreased to 9.5 percent, ranking Colgate in the bottom third of the top 30 liberal arts colleges in the nation.
While the numbers may seem to be cause for alarm, the Pell Grant data does not tell the whole story. Pell Grants, while helping the students with the most need, are not awarded to all of those applicants who receive financial aid. Indeed, the financial aid data for the Colgate class of 2011 shows that aid was given to some students with family incomes as high as or above $200,000, while Pell Grants would only have been granted to those below $40,000. Financial aid given to international students is also not counted in the Pell Grant data, as federal grants are only given to U.S. citizens.
Colgate, Dean of Admissions Gary Ross said, “is very generous, and becoming more generous” with its financial aid. Last year, Colgate awarded 34.8% of the class of 2011 an average grant of $30,120, an allotment large enough to make financial aid the second largest component of the university’s operating budget. Through ambitious giving campaigns such as The Passion for the Climb, Colgate has made a commitment to further increase the amount of capital it is able to devote to financial aid.
Colgate, however, is not unique among the nation’s top institutions in its commitment to offering generous financial aid packages. The persistence of the downward trend in low-income enrollment suggests that other factors besides economic incentives are at work.
The JBHE article suggested that one possible cause for declining enrollment in the nations top schools is the so called “sticker shock” a low-income family may have upon learning that a school’s full tuition has risen to the realm of $40,000 or $50,000 annually.
Director of Financial Aid Marcelle Tyburski echoed this statement, saying, “There are a lot of students who look at our price tag and immediately discount us.”
While many low-income students are able to have their needs fully met by Colgate and other top institutions, interest may have fallen off in recent years as tuitions have increased and schools have come to seem more elite and inaccessible.
Vice President and Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson expressed this opinion, saying, “We recognize that elite, highly selective institutions can be intimidating and isolating”.
In a number of ways, Colgate has been working hard to counter the perception that the University is only a sanctum for the privileged. The Office of Admission has been active in this regard.
“We spend a lot of time going to areas where there are underserved schools and underserved populations of what we hope will be college-bound young women and young men,” said Dean Ross.
Over the last five years, Colgate has increased its contact with community-based organizations that council young men and women through the trying college and financial aid application processes.
The administration has also worked to foster a more inclusive atmosphere on campus to make Colgate seem more welcoming to students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. According to Johnson, the University attempts to counter the perception of Colgate as intimidating by, “projecting a message about what sort of community we want to be,” one that, “values diversity in many forms – racial, economic, and geographical.”
While a multitude of factors may be behind the decreasing number of Pell Grant recipients at the nations top colleges, Colgate has taken an active role to ensure that none of these factors are ones over which the University can exert control. Through measures such as increasing financial aid, stepping up recruitment efforts or creating a more vibrant and welcoming on-campus community, Colgate has shown that it intends to buck the trend of increasing economic homogeneity at the nations top colleges and universities.
Whether or not Colgate’s efforts will have a statistical impact is yet to be determined, but it can at least be said with confidence that the University is not content with projecting an image of insularity and elitism.