Flagships Flunked on Access

Study gives 32 universities grades of D or F on enrolling and educating minority and needy students -- but some doubt its premises.
November 21, 2006

Nothing subtle about the title: "Engines of Inequality." Public flagship universities do a generally poor job of enrolling and educating underrepresented minority students and those from low-income families, and actually regressed rather than made progress on those fronts from 1995 to 2004, the Education Trust argues in a report released Monday.

The report from Education Trust, a nonprofit group whose mission is advancing the interests of educationally disadvantaged students, grades 50 leading public universities and the group as a whole on their success (or, more often, their perceived lack of it) in enrolling low-income and minority students and in graduating minority students. The nonprofit group gave 4 of the 50 institutions an overall grade of B, while 14 received C's, 25 earned D's, and 7 were hit with F's. (A listing of the institutions and their grades is in the table below.)

It particularly decries the growing tendency of elite public colleges to provide institutional financial aid based on academic merit than on students' financial need. In the aggregate, the report shows, the 50 flagships increased the amount of institutional aid they gave to families with incomes over $100,000 by 406 percent from 1995 to 2003 (to $257.3 million from $50.8 million), while the amount for families earning under $20,000 actually declined and the amount for families earning $20,000 to $39,000 grew by 54 percent.

"The flagships are charged with special responsibilities for producing the future political, business and civic leaders of their respective states," the report states. But in "the relentless pursuit not of expanded opportunity but of increased selectivity," it adds, "many of these flagship institutions have become more and more enclaves for the most privileged of their state's young people."

Officials at several flagship institutions, including some that have adopted well-publicized policies aimed at increasing the representation of low income students, said they applauded the goals of the Education Trust report but questioned some of its premises and interpretations. They particularly took issue with the notion that flagship institutions should have student bodies with the same racial and socioeconomic makeup of their states' high school graduates. That fails, they say, to acknowledge the fact that many states have raised the academic goals and expectations for students at their flagship institutions, and that growing numbers of minority and low-income students come out of the secondary school system academically underprepared to meet those expectations.

"The inference of this report and the basis for the grading of flagships is that their responsibility is to reflect the demographics of the state," said Shirley A. Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which received an overall D grade in the report despite its recent efforts at expanding access for low income students. "I say that it's not, not based upon our charter, anyhow. It's to make sure that excellence remains the hallmark of a flagship, and that we are welcoming and inclusive of those students who have demonstrated the aptitude and preparation to meet our admissions standards."

Placing Pressure on Institutions

Education Trust has issued a series of reports in recent years designed to hold colleges accountable for their performance in educating underrepresented students. Its work, as a whole, is designed to shine a light on colleges' performance and to change the public conversation about what institutions get credit for.

"It's time we think differently about the way we talk about, and think about, quality in higher education," said Kati Haycock, the group's director. "Colleges gets a lot of status from things that have very little to do with quality," such as SAT scores, magazine rankings and sports scores, she said. "It's really important that we develop some different metrics; for who they serve, and what they do with the students they serve."

The new report focuses on the leading public universities, said Haycock, because they are "powerful gatekeepers" that provide -- or, too often, she said, deny -- access to the state's elite circles.

The report, which Haycock (a member of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education) co-wrote with Danette Gerald, a research associate at the Education Trust, presents data on several measures of the flagships' performance.

It looks, for example, at the the proportion of African American, Latino and American Indian students among all freshmen enrolled at each institution in 2004, compared to the proportion of those minority students among all high school graduates that year in their respective states. The closer those proportions are, the better an institution's grade on that, and 27 of the 50 received F's, while 5 earned A's.

It then compares that 2004 proportion to a similar proportion in 1992 to see whether the institution made progress or not over that time, and 15 made gains, while 35 showed declines.

Similarly, it compares the proportion of each flagship university's student body that received Pell Grants in 2004 to the proportion of Pell Grant recipients at all public colleges in the state, and finds 7 institutions to warrant A grades, and 26 to deserve F's. In the comparison to 1992 on access for low income students, 44 flagships reverted, the Education Trust study suggests.

The report also grades institutions on "student success" by comparing their six-year graduation rates for minority students with those for white students, and gives the vast majority of institutions B's and C's on that front.

The study then comes up with overall grades, summing up the other ones. No institution earned an A, but four were given B's: the Universities of Hawaii at Manoa, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Vermont. The eight spanked with an overall F were Pennsylvania State University and the Universities of Arizona, Arkansas at Fayetteville, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mississippi, North Dakota and Rhode Island.

While the Education Trust study acknowledges that the poor state of public elementary and secondary education partially explains the dearth of low income and minority students at elite institutions, it rejects the argument that that answer is sufficient. "High-achieving, high-income students are five times more likely to attend a highly selective college and nearly twice as likely to attend a selective college than are similarly accomplished students from the bottom three quartiles," the report says.

Why aren't more such students ending up at selective flagship universities? The chief villain, the report suggests, can be found in the increasing tendency of the institutions to use students' perceived "merit" (academic or otherwise) rather than financial need in distributing the financial aid they themselves award, which now "dwarfs" the amount of grant aid their students receive from either federal, state or private sources. From 1995 to 2003, the study finds, the 50 flagship institutions increased the average amount of aid they gave to grant recipients from families with incomes between $80,000 and $99,999 by 71 percent, while the size of the average grant they gave to students with incomes under $20,000 actually shrunk by 2 percent.

Over all, the amount of institutional aid the institutions gave out to upper income families grew much faster than the aid they awarded to lower income students, as shown in the table that follows:

Aggregate Institutional Aid Awarded by 50 Flagship Universities, 1995-2003 (in millions)

Family income 1995 2003 Amount change % change
>$20,000 $196.6 $171.0 -$25.6 -13.0%
$20,000-$39,999 $187.0 $288.3 $101.3 54.0
$40,000-$59,999 $122.2 $229.2 $107.0 87.6
$60,000-$79,999 $82.5 $259.6 $177.1 214.6
$80,000-$99,999 $25.2 $147.3 $122.1 484.5
$100,000+ $50.8 $257.3 $206.5 406.0

"These dollar figures tell a disturbing story about the choices made by public research universities, including the flagship universities that are the subject of this paper," the authors write. "The saddest choice of all is this: these universities find it more important to use their own money to buy high-income students, who will almost inevitably attend an elite institution no matter what, than to expand the enrollment of -- or lower the financial burden on -- low-income students."

The report offers flagship institutions a series of recommendations aimed at improving the status of low income and minority students at their institutions, including stepping up their recruitment of talented students from those groups, reallocating their institutional financial aid funds, doing a better job of educating the underrepresented students they already enroll. The report credits some institutions -- like Ohio State University for its aggressive outreach to minority and low income students, the University of Maryland at College Park for its program to expand grant aid for needy students and the University of New Mexico for a program of reaching out to college dropouts -- and encourages other flagship institutions to mimic those and other efforts.

"Flagship universities don't have to wait on anyone else to act," the report says. "They have sufficient wealth and prestige to risk a little of both for this purpose."

A Skewed Perspective

Reaction to the Education Trust report from public research university officials was, perhaps not surprisingly, measured. While none of them explicitly challenged the data underlying the report, several said they believed that it had been presented in misleading ways, or at least in ways that were designed to portray them in the worst possible light.

Leaders of the major associations that include flagship universities responded in almost identical terms. “The flagship public universities strongly believe in their social and economic mobility role and they will want to review the study carefully," said Peter McPherson, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. "We have some methodology questions about the survey and some of the data is dated. We do recognize there is an imbalance in the distribution of need vs. merit-based aid. The input-oriented ranking systems are probably the driving factor here. Universities, however, do have an important responsibility in this area.” 

And Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, added: "All of the AAU flagship campuses and the other selective public universities with which I am familiar take seriously their mission of providing opportunity for minorities and those from low-income backgrounds. To the degree their state laws permit, they work hard to increase the number of students from these backgrounds who attend and succeed at their institutions. While we might question the report’s methodology, its recommendations make sense, and our universities are already doing most of these things. But clearly there is more to be done to achieve the goal of full equality of opportunity.

Some officials bristled. Bill Mahon, a spokesman for Pennsylvania State University, which was among the universities that received an overall grade of F, said in an e-mail that he was "not impressed with the superficial analysis of the statistics [Education Trust] gathered." Penn State's F for minority access is ironic, he wrote, given that "we have increased minority enrollment every year for at least the past decade, even though located in a part of a state with an extremely small minority population." He noted that black enrollment has grown to 4,481 this year from 2,864 in 1996, and that "Penn State (Grade 'F') has more than twice the number of minority students enrolled than the entire student body of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (Grade 'A').

"Penn State has been on the right track for more than a decade and will continue to move forward on minority enrollment and access issues in the future," Mahon added. "We are proud of what we have done and where the institution is going."

William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, whose flagship campus, the University of Maryland at College Park, received an overall grade of D, said he hoped the Education Trust's "important" report would "help to bring attention to what I think is really becoming a crisis in our country: the underrepresentation of low income students, many of whom are minorities, at our colleges and universities." Like officials at several other institutions, he said the report's several-year-old data may fail to account for steps that College Park and other universities have taken in the last two years to bolster access for low income and minority students.

And "no one should fault flagship campuses or any other university for aspiring to improve its quality, and to become recognized as a very high quality institution," Kirwan said. But he added that he agreed at least partially with the report's contention "that in that pursuit of excellence, certain things have become distorted," including the push toward merit-based rather than need-based aid. "That is something that we have to address on our campuses," Kirwan said. "It cannot continue along this path.".

Education Trust's Grades for 50 Flagship Universities

Institution Minority Access Low - Income Access Minority Student Success Overall Grade
Indiana U. at Bloomington C F C D
Louisiana State U. F F A D
Ohio State U. C D B C
Pennsylvania State U. F F C F
Rutgers U. at New Brunswick D B B C
State U. of New York at Buffalo F A D D
U. of Alabama F F A D
U. of Alaska at Fairbanks A A F C
U. of Arizona F F C F
U. of Arkansas at Fayetteville F F C F
U. of California at Berkeley F A B C
U. of Colorado at Boulder F F B D
U. of Connecticut F F B D
U. of Delaware F F B D
U. of Florida D F B D
U. of Georgia F F A D
U. of Hawaii at Manoa D A A B
U. of Idaho B C C C
U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign F F C F
U. of Iowa B F C D
U. of Kansas D F C D
U. of Kentucky C A C C
U. of Massachusetts at Amherst F A B C
U. of Maine A B D C
U. of Maryland at College Park F D B D
U. of Michigan at Ann Arbor B F B C
U. of Minnesota-Twin Cities A D D C
U. of Mississippi F F C F
U. of Missouri at Columbia F F B D
U. of Montana D A D C
U. of Nebraska at Lincoln F C D D
U. of New Hampshire A D A B
U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill F F B D
U. of North Dakota F C F F
U. of New Mexico B B B B
U. of Nevada at Reno F C B D
U. of Oklahoma F F B D
U. of Oregon F D C D
U. of Rhode Island F F C F
U. of South Carolina at Columbia F F B D
U. of South Dakota D C F D
U. of Tennessee at Knoxville F F A D
U. of Texas at Austin F F B D
U. of Utah B C B C
U. of Virginia F F A D
U. of Vermont A D A B
U. of Washington D C B C
U. of Wisconsin at Madison C F C D
U. of Wyoming C B B C
West Virginia U. A F D D


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