Measuring a College's Commitment to Economic Diversity

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In mid-January, The New York Times published the results of a study on the equality of educational opportunities for students of varying socioeconomic status. This study is one of many that attempt to compare the socioeconomic diversity of college campuses and thus their level of commitment to educational access for all students, regardless of their families’ income level.

The headline-making takeaway from the Equality of Opportunity Project was that at many “elite” colleges and universities, more students come from the top one percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.

Given that low-income students earn as much as their affluent peers after graduating from elite colleges, the case seems pretty clear that schools should increase their commitment to supporting low-income students.

But what does that look like?

One way to identify schools with a strong commitment is to look for schools that are “need blind” -- that is, they admit students without considering their ability to pay tuition. In theory, this means that all students have an equal opportunity for admission.

Yet this model of assuring access rests on the assumption that low-income students have an equal opportunity to prepare strong applications – that those students have had the same test preparation classes, summer volunteer experiences, tutors, music lessons, and extras available to their affluent peers -- and are equally represented in the applicant pool.

Another way to identify schools committed to socioeconomic diversity is to look at the percentage of admitted students identified as Pell Grant recipients. This measure does capture the proportion of the student body with the highest level of financial need, but it tells you little about the rest of the student body. As the Equality of Opportunity Project revealed, some schools have a high percentage of students with high financial need, but they balance this with an even higher percentage of kids from the wealthiest part of the population.

The college I lead, Bryn Mawr, is not need blind. And while Bryn Mawr’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients is impressive among selective liberal arts colleges, our rate is comparable to many of our peers. But we are committed to recruiting students from across the economic spectrum, and thus approximately 53 percent of our students receive need-based financial aid. So we are among the “elite” schools recognized by The Times for enrolling the highest percentage of low- and middle-income students.

But Bryn Mawr can only maintain that level of socioeconomic diversity because we have a community that is willing to prioritize financial aid over other budget needs -- and an alumnae/i donor base eager and willing to support financial aid. If Bryn Mawr had to rely more on tuition revenue, we could not afford the socioeconomic diversity we have. We are fortunate that our alumnae value the excellence of a diverse student body.

For many schools, the hard fact is that delivering a high-quality education is an expensive endeavor and schools vary in their commitment to socioeconomic diversity and in how they balance their budgets to be able to afford the financial aid that they award.

No one measure will tell the complete story of a school’s commitment to socioeconomic diversity. And for the prospective student, the best way to find out may be to apply. As the Times report shows, many of the best schools make significant investments in financial aid so that their exceptional education is truly available to everyone.

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