Selectivity vs Access

March 2, 2011

Today’s Inside Higher Education includes a news item entitled “Is there a price for inclusiveness?”   It focuses on Syracuse University, which is led by the terrific Nancy Cantor.  Here’s how it opens:

“Over the past decade, Syracuse University has seen the percentage of its students who are eligible for Pell Grants grow to 26 percent from 14 percent. These days most private colleges boast about large percentages of their students receiving financial aid, but with much of that aid not based on financial need, Syracuse’s gains in Pell-eligible students (a good proxy for those from low-income backgrounds) stand out.

“But not everyone at Syracuse is celebrating. The past few years have also seen an increase in Syracuse’s admission rate from the mid-50s to 60 percent — and the idea that well over half of applicants are being admitted doesn’t sit well with some faculty members and students.”

Let’s applaud Syracuse for educating more Pell-eligible students.  Let’s not get too concerned about what the Syracuse faculty thinks.  Let’s not get too concerned about what this will do to Syracuse in the rankings from Useless News and World Retort, which weighs selectivity very highly.  (Read: we think colleges are better to the extent they refuse service to more students.)

Instead, let’s ask what we make of the apparent trade-off between selectivity and access.  Does providing more access to lower income students have to come at the price of worsened selectivity?  Let’s note that across higher education in the United States there is a pronounced negative correlation between higher selectivity and percentage of Pell recipients.  The most prestigious colleges and universities (the ones with the highest selectivity/lowest rates of admissions relative to applicants) are also the colleges and universities serving the smallest percentages of Pell eligible students.  There are outliers.  There are institutions that have chosen (to be selective means that a college or university has choices who to admit) to admit, enroll and graduate higher percentages of Pell eligible students.  I could name names, and perhaps will in another post.  (Ask me.)

Nevertheless, the negative correlation is quite strong.  We know that most of the indicators higher education uses to identify high potential students (SAT or ACT, HS grades, extra curricular involvements) are positively correlated with family income.  Most highly selective institutions choose to admit smaller percentages of Pell eligible students.  Put another way, either colleges and universities can’t distinguish which low-income students have high potential, or else they are saying that they’d rather educate high potential students who have money.  I don’t know which hypothesis is cheerier.  They’re both pretty ugly.

Earlham’s Pell-eligible rate is about what Syracuse’s is.  I like playing on the same team with Nancy Cantor and also Cal State University Chancellor Charles Reed, a blunt spoken, effective good guy.

This week, in Washington D.C., Reed , is urging Congress not to cut Pell funding, and to be sure to direct it in the most effective ways.  “Why, he asks, should colleges with $5 and $10 billion endowments receive Pell money? Such schools could easily supply need-based grant aid without federal help.”  And “What the hell does the Ivy League need Pell for?”

Good questions.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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