Poor and Minority Students Underserved by Public Universities

Jan 14, 2010

A new Education Trust study finds that states' flagship universities are failing to provide sufficient financial aid to meet the needs of low-income and minority students.

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EdTrust - the Education Trust

Public Education For Some

Public universities play a crucial role in our society by providing access to higher education and its myriad benefits. The researchers at Education Trust suggest that this should be especially true at state flagship universities. Typically the oldest and most well-regarded public schools, these colleges produce the civic, political and business leaders in their states. They therefore have a heightened responsibility to reach out to everyone in the community.

In 2006, the Education Trust released 'Engines of Inequality', a study looking at the representation of minorities and low-income students at flagship state universities. Their final report was disheartening.

Percentage of minority and low-income students at research universities in 2004

Figures 1 and 2 from 'Engines of Inequality,' pages 5 and 6.

Using the percentage of students qualifying for the need-based Federal Pell Grant to define low-income, the study found that both poor and minority students were dramatically underrepresented at flagship universities as compared with other schools. The report put pressure on universities to improve their financial aid policies and increase outreach to these groups.

Change in percentage of minorities in flagship universities from 2004 to 2007

Figure 7 from 'Opportunity Adrift,' page 7.

'Opportunity Adrift' tracks the progress of public research universities since the 2006 study. Sadly, it appears that not much changed between 2004 and 2007, the years from which the two studies took their data.

As the graph above indicates, the percentage of minority students at flagship universities has gone up slightly. However, the ratio of low-income students has gone down, and the general distribution of students at these public universities still looks a lot like private colleges. Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust and co-author of the study, put it bluntly when she stated that these universities 'continue to enroll students who are significantly richer and ...whiter than the state populations they're supposed to be serving.'

There are many factors that affect the percentage of low-income and minority students at a given school. These groups have historically received poor college preparation during their K-12 years, and access to government aid, an important part of financing education for the poor, has declined. However, as the report points out, the growing movement to improve college prep for all high school students has seen remarkable success in recent years. Furthermore, of all public colleges, flagships and research-extensive universities are affected the least by changes in government aid. They're the wealthiest public institutions, and their students receive more grant aid directly from them then government funding sources. It's up to the schools to decide who gets funded, and Education Trust's research shows that they had the resources to cushion low-income students from rising tuition costs.

Instead, they chose to reach out to students in the highest income brackets. In 2007, flagship universities spent $361 million combined on grants to students from families who earned more than $115,000 per year. Many of these students have over met need as measured by their Expected Family Contribution (EFC) on their FAFSA. That wouldn't matter if they were meeting the needs of the poor as well, but the opposite is true. The average low-income student at these same institutions was left, after grants, with a tuition burden equivalent to 70% of family income. These schools are spending almost as much money in grants on students in the top two quintiles of family income as they do for those students in the bottom two quintiles.

The report struggles to find a reason behind this pattern. There is a clear drive at research institutions to increase their prestige by earning high rankings, which depend on which students they exclude as much as which ones they admit. But as 'Opportunity Adrift' points out, high achieving students come from all races and income levels - flagship universities are just choosing to pursue the wealthier ones. By not providing sufficient funding for low income students, they're forcing even the high achieving ones to turn to institutions that offer lower quality of education for less money. A recent analysis showed that, among students eligible for entry into selective schools, about 60% of low-income students end up attending less selective institutions or no college at all.

University of Utah

The news isn't all bleak, however. Change is slow, and the report acknowledges that by taking a snapshot of data from 2007, they were studying a moment that is relatively early in the process of improving access to low-income and minority students. Furthermore, when breaking down the data by school, Education Trust found that many institutions performed well across some metrics of success in this area. They broke down their 2007 performance measures into three categories:

  1. Minority student access
  2. Low-income student access
  3. Minority student success (six-year graduation rate)

Some schools did well at providing access to underrepresented groups, but failed to provide the support to improve graduation rates. Others made access difficult for these populations, but had high success rates for those students who did get in.

Two schools - the University of Utah and the University of Maine - performed well across the board.

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