No Room for the Needy?

June 3, 2011

Education Trust, a non-profit analysis and advocacy organization that focuses intensely on the combination of learning and access issues has published a provocative new study asking which colleges and universities in the United States genuinely serve poor students by admitting and graduating them.  A link to Inside Higher Education‘s story is here.  A link to the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s story (gated) is here.

The authors of the Education Trust study are Mamie Lynch, Jennifer Engle and Jose L. Cruz.  Entitled “Priced Out: How the Wrong Policies on Financial Aid Hurt Poor Students,” the report’s results are worth studying, but I think they have set the criteria in ways that increase the shock and fail to illuminate real, important differences among colleges and universities.  They also strangely set Berea College to one side.

The study looked for colleges that met these three criteria:

(1) At least 30 percent of students were eligible for Pell Grants.

(2) The graduation rate was at least 50 percent.

(3) The net price charged to the poorest students, expressed as a percentage of family income was no more than 27 percent of annual average income, or about $4,700 (this is roughly the same percentage of family income that middle-class students pay).

Using IPEDS (Federal Department of Education) data, they found just five institutions that met these criteria:  California State University-Fullerton Cal State Long Beach, CUNY-Queens College, CUNY-Bernard M. Baruch College, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Kudos to those five.  Note they are all public institutions.  Note that none is a flagship public.  But do the criteria make sense?  Should we think a 50% graduation rate is acceptable, for example?  If we raised that to 60%, one one, CUNY-Baruch would have met the three criteria.

What about lowering the Pell rate to 25% or 20%?  Then an interestingly larger set of institutions would have made the grade, including some independent institutions, and we could have asked what those institutions do to distinguish themselves. Instead, the Ed Trust analysis appears to want to say “shame on all of you.”

How about 20% Pell, 60% graduation rate and net price for poor students no more than $4700?  Then Earlham would have been one of a dozen or two selective non-profits to make the cut.  Most flagship publics still would not.  The contrast between the colleges and universities that do and do not meet the 20% Pell, 60% graduation rate, and net costs for poor students below $4700 would be more interesting, I think.

Berea College would, too.  But then Berea actually meets all their published criteria.  Ed Trust does provide a “sidebar” on Berea, but omit it from their list of five because of its “unique pricing model.”  Put another way: Berea AIMS to be affordable to low-income students.  Why should that eliminate Berea from the analysis?

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).
This entry was posted in Access, Accountability and Accreditation, Money Matters. Bookmark the permalink.

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