As enrollment lags across the country, some of the highest-performing colleges are bringing in more low- and moderate-income students, according to a report released Monday from the American Talent Initiative (ATI).
Pulling data from 96 colleges, ATI found the number of students receiving Pell Grants increased 3.5% from 2015-16 to 217,541 students in 2017-18. More than two-thirds of colleges reported increases, with nearly half doing so while reversing declines.
ATI was founded in December 2016 to grow enrollment of low- and moderate-income students by 50,000 in the following decade at some 300 U.S. colleges with consistent six-year graduation rates at or above 70%. At the two-year point, "early evidence strongly suggests that the goal is within reach," the report notes. To do so, the colleges would need to collectively increase enrollment of those students by another 13.4% by 2025.
ATI, which to date is backed by $4.7 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, started with 30 member institutions and has since grown to 108 institutions. Of that number, 79 are private nonprofits and 29 are public colleges. Within their ranks are a range of institutions, among them the full Ivy League, Spelman College, the College of Wooster in Ohio, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Virginia Tech. Together, they enroll nearly 1.1 million students across 31 states, with 67% in public colleges.
Those colleges are taking several steps to enroll more low- and moderate-income students, according to the report. They include making diversity a priority for top administrators and growing the size of their student body. Building new pipelines for nontraditional students is also a priority, as is actively promoting the availability of need-based aid to encourage more students to apply. Finally — and a critical counterpart to goals of raising enrollment levels — many of the colleges have targets for increasing retention and graduation rates for low-income students.
Another participant is the University of Michigan, whose High Achieving Involved Leader (HAIL) Scholarship and Go Blue Guarantee programs are called out in the report as affordability initiatives contributing to a 552-student increase in Pell recipients from 2015-16 to 2017-18.
A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research looks more closely at the impact of HAIL — which offers low-income, high-achieving students four years of free tuition and fees — and related efforts to make the aid's availability more widely known.
The paper examines the effect of a mailing campaign that notified eligible students and their principals and parents that the scholarship was available and with little red tape in the way of securing it. Participating students were twice as likely to apply, be admitted and to enroll than students who just received a postcard with application deadlines.
Efforts such as ATI's to recruit more low-income, high-performing students are multifaceted. That's something critics of related tactics such as free college programs, like HAIL, say they fall short on. A recent report from The Century Foundation urges state and federal policymakers to consider funding such programs beyond initial tuition costs to ensure the college is able to provide the additional supports these students need, including academic advisors, financial aid counselors and mentors.