An Increasingly Unusual Focus: Low-Income Students

Simpson in Iowa, without a large endowment, will cover tuition for everyone up to family income of $60,000.

November 13, 2017
Simpson College

Many small private colleges are worried about enrollments these days. A Midwestern location doesn't seem to help. Nor does a small endowment. So the strategies that are evident tend to focus on how to get more "full-pay" students. That's a big motivation for many colleges that are recruiting internationally, but most would be thrilled with domestic students who can pay their way (or even a significant portion). Sure, the elite colleges, with multibillion-dollar endowments, have been adding generous programs for lower-income students, but those colleges are in the distinct minority.

And that's why last week's news from Simpson College stands out. It's not famous. At 1,500 students, it's not large. Its Indianola, Iowa, location is hardly a metropolis and places the college in a state where attending a large public university is the norm. At the same time, it lacks the national reputation of fellow Iowa institution Grinnell College and enrolls 70 percent of its students from inside the state. And the endowment is about $85 million, making the college tuition dependent.

Simpson last week announced that it was creating a new program, Simpson Promise, that would cover tuition costs for Iowa residents with family incomes of up to $60,000, provided that they enroll full-time and live on campus (and room and board remain the responsibility of students and their families). Students must apply for federal and state aid for which they are eligible, and Simpson will then cover the rest of tuition. (Tuition in the next academic year will be $38,412, and total expenses are estimated at $47,524.)

Deb Tierney, vice president for enrollment, said that the plan grew out of concern about a shift in the demographics at the college. While there has always been some fluctuation from year to year, typically between 28 and 30 percent of students came from family incomes of up to $60,000. That has been a point of pride at Simpson, which values its connections to its home state. In the last few years, however, Simpson noticed that the share of new students coming from that income level dropped to about 23 percent. Demand continued at roughly the same levels as the past for all other income groups, but not for those under $60,000.

"The data clearly show in this group that they have stopped considering Simpson and many colleges and universities," said Tierney. The students who are the targets of the Simpson Promise already would be eligible for federal, state and institutional aid, she said, but they were not applying in the same numbers as in the past. It's not hard to see why public colleges would be attractive -- in-state students at the University of Iowa can cover tuition, room and board for just under $20,000.

Board members played a key part in pushing the idea for the program, said Tracie Pavon, assistant vice president for enrollment and financial assistance.

"Our board challenged us to take a hard look at access and affordability and they wanted us to do something bold," Pavon said. Board members feared the college slipping out of the minds of Iowans who don't have a lot of money. "Simpson has served this population very well over our existence," she said.

Tierney said that the college is not sure exactly how much the initiative will cost the college. Simpson is need blind in admissions, and she said that the hope is that the percentage of new students from the up-to-$60,000 income group returns to the 28 to 30 percent level. But she said it could go higher or lower. "We've done a lot of modeling," she said, and Simpson officials are confident that the plan will work. She also said that she hopes that the campaign will attract attention to the ability of the college to promote affordability -- even for those from family incomes above $60,000, through various forms of aid. (The college's discount rate is already 50 percent, so most students pay nothing close to full freight.)

"We know our risk. We know what we need to do on revenue," said Tierney. "But the issue is access to our college. We view this as a first step, as something we need to do for Iowa students."


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