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Wash U's Plan to Enroll More Low-Income Students Doesn't Go Far Enough

Washington University in St. Louis, which has long been the least socioeconomically diverse college in the country despite being one of the wealthiest, announced last week that it plans to double the proportion of freshmen Pell Grant recipients that it enrolls by 2020. The plan sounds good, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Under the plan, Wash U. will spend $25 million a year for five years to increase the share of freshmen receiving Pell Grants to 13 percent from 6 percent. “Improving the socioeconomic diversity of our student body is not just important; it’s critical to our success as a university,” said Holden Thorp, the university’s provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Those sentiments represent a sea change in the attitudes of senior Wash U. officials. A couple of years ago, a top university administrator told me that the reason the campus wasn’t more socioeconomically diverse was because there weren’t enough low income students in its region who were academically qualified to attend the institution.

But the truth is that the university never made much of an effort to recruit low-income students. Instead, it focused on providing generous amounts of merit aid to attract students who were affluent and high-achieving. In doing so, it helped transform the university from being a “streetcar” college to one of the country’s top-ranked private colleges. Merit aid is "something that helps people pay attention to us, and not just think of us as something flyover land between Pittsburgh and Denver,” Benjamin Sandler, Wash U’s then-financial aid director told The New York Times in 2003.

So the university’s recent change-of-heart is encouraging. But why is the school aiming so low? Getting to 13 percent in five years is not a very impressive goal considering that other elite private colleges, like Amherst and Vassar, have made more impressive gains over a comparable period of time. According to data that I have collected for my latest Undermining Pell report, Wash U. would still be among the country’s 35 least socioeconomically diverse private colleges in the country under this plan. Many of the university’s peers, like Pomona, Rice, Vassar, and Wesleyan, enroll a far larger share of Pell recipients than 13 percent.

With a nearly $6 billion endowment, Wash U. is one of the wealthiest private colleges in the country. It can surely afford to set its sights higher than just catching up with peers who have been laggards in this area."