Efforts to Recruit Poor Students Lag at Some Elite Colleges

Richard Perez-Pena

With affirmative action under attack and economic mobility feared to be stagnating, top colleges profess a growing commitment to recruiting poor students. But a comparison of low-income enrollment shows wide disparities among the most competitive private colleges. A student at Vassar, for example, is three times as likely to receive a need-based Pell Grant as one at Washington University in St. Louis.
“It’s a question of how serious you are about it,” said Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar. She said of colleges with multibillion-dollar endowments and numerous tax exemptions that recruit few poor students, “Shame on you.”
At Vassar, Amherst College and Emory University, 22 percent of undergraduates in 2010-11 received federal Pell Grants, which go mostly to students whose families earn less than $30,000 a year. The same year, the most recent in the federal Department of Education database, only 7 percent of undergraduates at Washington University were Pell recipients, and 8 percent at Washington and Lee University were, according to research by The New York Times.
Researchers at Georgetown University have found that at the most competitive colleges, only 14 percent of students come from the lower 50 percent of families by income. That figure has not increased over more than two decades, an indication that a generation of pledges to diversify has not amounted to much. Top colleges differ markedly in how aggressively they hunt for qualified teenagers from poorer families, how they assess applicants who need aid, and how they distribute the available aid dollars.
Some institutions argue that they do not have the resources to be as generous as the top colleges, and for most colleges, with meager endowments, that is no doubt true. But among the elites, nearly all of them with large endowments, there is little correlation between a university’s wealth and the number of students who receive Pell Grants, which did not exceed $5,550 per student last year.

Related:Travis Reginal and Justin Porter were friends back in Jackson, Miss. They attended William B. Murrah High School, which is 97 percent African-American and 67 percent low income. Murrah is no Ivy feeder. Low-income students rarely apply to the nation’s best colleges. But Mr. Reginal just completed a first year at Yale, Mr. Porter at Harvard. Below, they write about their respective journeys.
Reflections on the Road to Yale: A First-Generation Student Striving to Inspire Black Youth by Travis Reginal:

For low-income African-American youth, the issue is rooted in low expectations. There appear to be two extremes: just getting by or being the rare gifted student. Most don’t know what success looks like. Being at Yale has raised my awareness of the soft bigotry of elementary and high school teachers and administrators who expect no progress in their students. At Yale, the quality of your work must increase over the course of the term or your grade will decrease. It propelled me to work harder.

Reflections on the Road to Harvard: A Classic High Achiever, Minus the Money for a College Consultant by Justin Porter

I do not believe that increasing financial aid packages and creating glossy brochures alone will reverse this trend. The true forces that are keeping us away from elite colleges are cultural: the fear of entering an alien environment, the guilt of leaving loved ones alone to deal with increasing economic pressure, the impulse to work to support oneself and one’s family. I found myself distracted even while doing problem sets, questioning my role at this weird place. I began to think, “Who am I, anyway, to think I belong at Harvard, the alma mater of the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Romneys? Maybe I should have stayed in Mississippi where I belonged.”

2 thoughts on “Efforts to Recruit Poor Students Lag at Some Elite Colleges”

  1. Here is a poem by Travis Reginal, the young man from Jackson, MS, who just completed his first year at Yale. It was published in the NYT Education supplement (8/4/13).
    MotherFather: A Poem by Travis Reginal
    I wake up at 3 in the morning with a pile of work I haven’t touched and deadlines that stand as daunting as skyscrapers and I think about you mother.
    I’m reminded of how at the end of each conversation there’s this awkward pause
    Where neither one of us can find the strength to say I love you.
    It’s not that I don’t, but rather the only way I could express the way I feel
    Is if I were to place my beating heart in your palms.
    I remember being in the airport at the beginning of my freshman year in college,
    Suitcase full of insecurities and doubts,
    With a pocket full of literary tricks up my sleeve,
    And a penchant for smiling my way through everything.
    But that day gratitude didn’t have enough room in my chest.
    Nothing could stop the levies in my eyes from breaking.
    Tears that resembled waterfalls
    Spelled your name on my cheeks and stained my plane tickets.
    No, this feeling has to be more than love.
    Because words will never be enough
    To describe a woman whose laugh is like the first meal in a while for a starving child.
    Mom, you don’t give yourself enough credit. You were 15, with a lifetime of dreams
    Tucked away in that precious head of yours,
    Until some smooth-talking guy
    Whispered empty promises,
    Took your dreams away as if he was doing you a favor,
    And gave you a child as a parting gift.
    Dad, if I would’ve known that moment was the closest you would ever be to me and my mother I would have forgiven you at conception.
    But little did I know, you had aborted me in your mind.
    And little did I know, that no matter how hard I tried or how far I hid myself in another reality as a child,
    That eventually you would cross my mind again.
    Every time I see another boy playing with his father,
    Every time I shave and realize that it shouldn’t take this long,
    Or every time my tie is slightly off-center because I watched that how-to-tie-a-tie video
    Too many damn times for my liking and I didn’t have anyone to show me how.
    It’s a sad day indeed, when you have to Google search how to be a man.
    I tried to make myself visible, make it impossible for you to ignore me
    Do whatever it took to make a headline somewhere.
    I made sure I’d work to be the top of my class in the hope you’d hear my graduation speech broadcast across TV
    Like I even ran track because I heard you were pretty fast in high school
    And if I won something, that would give us something in common
    Besides our first names.
    But mother, I don’t want this to be another sob story.
    I want you to remember that we lived every
    God-given moment to the fullest with what we had.
    We left permanent footprints on shores
    Where everything else was washed away.
    I don’t see life as a struggle
    Just as an opportunity to show what we’re made of.
    So let’s take memories past and write them on the face of giants so the world can see.
    Mother I will toast to your heartbeat,
    That I hear in my dreams at night.
    It’s a rhythm of hope and vitality that I never want to stop moving to.

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