Fewer poor students at top colleges

by Grace

It’s not surprising that lower-income students are underrepresented at top universities.  Family income correlates with many measures of academic achievement, suggesting this as a factor.  And according to  Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Stanford, there are many low-income students out there who are able to fulfill admissions criteria at these schools but are not applying.  Among other reasons, these students often do not have access to knowledgeable guidance counselors who are aware that top schools typically offer generous financial aid.

Pell Grants as a proxy for income
Most (about 60%) Pell Grant recipients come from families with incomes below $30,000, making it a useful indicator for low-income students.   (Over 90% have incomes below $50,000.)  Here are the average per-school Pell Grant percentage figures for several categories of universities among those ranked on a national level by US News & World Report for the 2009-10 school year.

Category                                                                      Percentage Pell Grant Recipients Per School
All universities (250 total)                                                      29%
Mid-ranked universities (13 total, ranked 119-128)              26%
Top ten ranked universities                                                   16%

More details for the top ten universities, based on 2009-10 school year:

Columbia stands out as having the highest number, just slightly below the average for all nationally ranked universities.  I wonder if it’s partly due to its relatively higher renown among the general population.  It also could be that a lower-income student finds it easier to blend in among the New York City student body than among those of other elite schools.  That’s just my speculation based on my relative familiarity with New York.  Perhaps Columbia simply has a very aggressive recruiting program for low-income students.  (Since this number increased significantly over the previous year, it could be a reporting error.)

Given the relatively low economic diversity at these universities, low-income students probably feel greater pressure to try to keep up with their wealthier peers than they might at many other schools.  I recently heard about a student who was unable to attend a business symposium at an elite school because he didn’t own the proper attire.

Sources for Pell Grant recipient income information:
Department of Education FEDERAL PELL GRANTS Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Request

4 Comments to “Fewer poor students at top colleges”

  1. Oh, that makes sense. It makes me think that some of these other schools on the list also may lack outreach programs to local high schools.


  2. Yes, the Yale/New Haven dynamic is not good. My impression is that the pressure to keep up appearances as a student is higher at Yale than at some other places.

    I know MIT does, or did, a fair bit of outreach in Boston.


  3. “…these students often do not have access to knowledgeable guidance counselors who are aware that top schools typically offer generous financial aid.”

    Our family income is just over 50,000, 4 children, and I already have one daughter on nearly-full scholarship at an Ivy, but I’m scared witless of the debt my remaining three may rack up without such a sweet deal.

    The fact is, even “generous financial aid” can still leave crippling debt after four years. I’m not sure it will be worth it.


  4. waiting for the other shoe – You’re right, of course. Even with “generous financial aid”, the out of pocket costs can be crippling for many families. Congratulations on daughter one’s accomplishment, and good luck on the rest.


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