High-achieving students from low-income backgrounds aren’t fictitious characters from the Game of Thrones HBO series; they exist — and in much larger numbers than many elite institutions would have you believe. Too many of these institutions rely on their selective admissions requirements to explain why so few low-income students enroll in their college.
In fact, at a symposium we co-hosted this month in Charlottesville, Va., a senior administrator at the University of Virginia used this excuse while attempting to explain why Pell Grant recipients make up only 12 percent of undergraduates, even though about 42 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds without a college degree in the Commonwealth are from low-income or working-class family backgrounds.
The subtle undertone in the “we are selective” defense is an oft-used and erroneous assertion that students from low-income and working-class backgrounds don’t meet the academic standards required to earn admission. Besides being demeaning, this assertion simply isn’t true.
Consider that 20 percent of students scoring at or above the 90th percentile on the ACT — a score of 28 or above — come from low-income and working-class families. Since most Virginians take the SAT, it is important to know that a score of 28 is roughly equivalent to 1260 on the SAT, which is higher than the SAT test scores for roughly 25 percent of U.Va. students. This means that the low-income and working-class students scoring in the 90th percentile have better standardized test scores than 25 percent of U.Va. students.
These data suggest that if U.Va. felt inclined, it could easily boost, perhaps double, the percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants without altering its admission requirements. Obviously this would require targeted recruitment of low-income students, an equity-minded admissions process tied to an aggressive need-based financial aid program, and mechanisms designed to support these students. However, I’m sure this feat is nothing the brilliant minds at U.Va., along with its hefty $5.1 BILLION endowment, can’t solve. If others can do it, why can’t U.Va.?
Frankly, it is a matter of priorities, and U.Va.’s seem to be misplaced. In an attempt to become selective, it has actually become exclusive. Public, flagship institutions should be committed to improving the welfare of all state residents through teaching, research, and service. Also, they should be expected to make reasonable attempts to strengthen the learning experience by crafting a student body that is rich with a diverse range of life experiences and perspectives. With only 12 percent of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, it doesn’t seem plausible that U.Va. is giving it “the old college try.” Instead U.Va. has become a fortress of exclusivity (not selectivity), serving those from the most fortunate of circumstances.