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March 29, 2011 1:46 PM Where Poor People Don’t Go to College, and Why

By Daniel Luzer

America’s most exclusive colleges aren’t very economically diverse. It’s mostly pretty rich people who attend the most selective schools. According to data collected by the Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s most prestigious colleges enrolled only small numbers of Pell Grant recipients. Pell Grants, federal grants available only students from low-income families, are generally used as a proxy for the number of poor students in a school.

In 2008, about 8 percent of University of Pennsylvania students received Pell Grants. At Yale the number was 8.9. At Princeton it was 9.9. At Duke 9.3 percent of students collect Pell Grants. Only 6.5 percent of Harvard students received Pell Grants.

Who’s surprised by this? According to a piece by David Leonhardt at the New York Times, the problem has something to do with college admissions. As he writes,

A study several years ago that found that elite colleges gave zero credit in the applications process to students from low-income families. All else equal, a poor student who scored, say, 650 on a standardized test had no better chance of being admitted than an affluent student who also scored 650 — despite all the obvious advantages that the affluent student had.
After the study came out, college administrators insisted that they would do better in the future. But it doesn’t look as if they are doing much better. The Chronicle graph suggests that elite colleges are still overlooking a good number of the country’s most talented, most deserving students.

Well that might be part of it, but it also might have something to do with the fact that Princeton costs $52,600 a year.

The most economically diverse of all elite colleges—with 30.7 percent of students receiving Pell Grants, it’s the University of California, Los Angeles—is public and costs only about $25,000 a year total. No wonder it has more poor students; it’s more affordable. Even the widespread availability of financial aid, while promising, sends a very confusing message to potential low income applicants, who find it difficult to figure out what college would really cost their families.

Elite colleges are expensive for a reason. Indeed, on some level, their quality has something (though not everything) to do with their cost. These schools are expensive to operate.

This is not to say that the high, and ever increasing, cost of America’s most elite colleges is appropriate. To summarize a conversation I used to have with my friends in college, surely an appreciation for the work of someone like John Rawls doesn’t require an appreciation for, say, ski vacations in Vail, Colorado. Is this connection between apparent intelligence and wealth just a coincidence? But come on. Let’s stop being surprised that elite colleges don’t have any poor people in them.

Asking why low income people don’t make it to America’s most exclusive colleges is sort of like asking why low income people don’t buy more BMWs. It’s because the price of the good largely prohibits the economically disadvantaged from purchasing that good.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • JEA on March 29, 2011 7:07 PM:

    I give you a grade of incomplete.

    What percentage of lower income students make up the total student population of these schools? What percentage are on academic scholarships at these schools?

    Examining Pell grants is only one facet of this issue.

    I'm not defending them but you need present a complete picture if you're going to criticize them.

  • David Martin on March 29, 2011 10:43 PM:

    The University of California is likely to be turning away needy students, what with severe budget cuts and pressures to increase lucrative out-of-state admissions.