Flogging the Flagships

January 14, 2010

Using catchy names like the Carolina Covenant, Access UVa, and the Illinois Promise, many of the country's public research universities -- like their elite private college peers -- have in the last several years created or expanded high-profile programs designed to increase their representation of students from low-income backgrounds and underrepresented minority groups.

So far, though, the institutions appear to have made little progress toward that goal, according to a report issued Wednesday.

The report, "Opportunity Adrift," from Education Trust, is a followup to the advocacy group's stinging 2006 report that underscored the underrepresentation of low-income and minority students at flagship universities and contributed to the pressure on the institutions to alter their financial aid and other policies to reach out more to such students. The new report aims to see how much progress the public research universities have made since then -- and the answer, said Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust, is not much at all.

While the representation of minority students edged up slightly at the 50 institutions from 2004 to 2007, as measured by Education Trust, students from low-income students were slightly less well represented on the campuses than they were three years earlier.

"These institutions continue to enroll students who are significantly richer and significantly whiter than the state populations they are supposed to be serving," Haycock, who co-wrote the report with two Education Trust staff members, said in a telephone news briefing Wednesday.

Haycock and her colleagues -- who make plain their point of view with the report's subtitle, "Our Flagship Universities Are Straying From Their Public Mission," acknowledged the new aid programs and other efforts the flagship universities have undertaken, which were reflected in notable changes in the proportion of their own financial aid that the institutions direct to needier students.

But countervailing pressures -- especially the desire to recruit the most academically skilled students in order to climb in college rankings schemes -- have led them to continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on students with no financial need.

The tables below show that while institutional financial aid awarded to students from lower income groups increased faster than aid for other students -- and the average amount of aid awarded to students from the top quintile actually decreased -- the universities provided about $750 million of their $1.9 billion in institutional aid to students from families with incomes over $80,400.

"In a spending pattern that is literally beyond belief, these institutions are spending almost exactly the same amount of money to provide grant aid to students in the top two quintiles of family income as they are spending on students in the bottom two quintiles," the report says.

Average Grant Aid, by Income Band, to Students at Flagship Universities

  Avg. Institutional Aid, 2003 Avg. Institutional Aid, 2007 % Change, 2003-7
Bottom 20% $3,982 $4,910 23%
Second 20% 4,169 4,382 5
Third 20% 3,805 3,805 0
Fourth 20% 4,175 4,186 0
Top 20% 4,342 4,158 -4
All Incomes 3,623 4,267 18

Aggregate Institutional Aid Awarded by Flagships

  2003 2007 % Change, 2003-7
Bottom 20% $287.5 $394.2 37%
Second 20% 366.6 388.2 6
Third 20% 283.1 368.4 30
Fourth 20% 341.6 399.9 17
Top 20% 282.5 361.4 28

So even as the institutions have begun to focus increasing amount of aid on low-income students, the report says, their continued chasing of top students has produced a perhaps unexpected result: slight increases in the representation of students from the upper income levels, and dips for lower-income students, as seen in the table below:

Proportion of Students at Flagship Universities, by Income Level

  2003 2007 Percentage Point Change, 2003-7
Bottom 20% 14% 13% -1%
Second 20% 16 15 -1
Third 20% 20 18 -2
Fourth 20% 24 25 1
Top 20% 27 30 3

In addition to those aggregate national data, the Education Trust report also presents institution-by-institution statistics that show the extent to which individual flagship universities have made progress -- or gone backwards -- both in enrolling low-income and minority students (in proportion to the representation of high school graduates or other college students in their states) and in getting those students through to graduation (in proportion to how their white students fare). A table showing the results on low-income student access for the 50 flagships is at the bottom of this article.

Education Trust singles out several institutions for their positive results and progress -- including the Universities of Florida, Maine and Utah, and West Virginia University -- and singles out Indiana University at Bloomington, the University of Michigan, and the University of Georgia, among others, for underperformance or declining.

Alternative View

Officials representing flagship universities, nationally and individually, praised Education Trust for focusing attention on important issues while, at the same time, taking issue with some of its numbers and, more broadly, with how the group interprets them.

In a response to the Ed Trust report, Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, focused his attention on the data (seen in the top table above) showing that the average amount of aid flowing to low-income students had risen by 23 percent, while the comparable figure for upper-income students had declined by 4 percent.

"This is an enormous change in a four-year period," he wrote. The universities will continue to shift funds in that direction, McPherson said, while cautioning that they may be limited in that pursuit by restrictions imposed by donors to their endowments. "Public research universities are keenly aware of the necessity for more need-based aid and actively work to solicit endowments that can be directed on the basis of financial need."

McPherson also suggested that the slower-than-desired growth in the representation of minority and low-income students at flagship colleges may be attributable to the increasing proportions of students flowing into community colleges. "The result is a decline in the proportion of higher education enrollment at four-year schools and a similar decline in the proportion of various subpopulations of students who attend these schools."

Chris Lucear is vice president for enrollment management at the University of Vermont, which the Education Trust report dings, among other things, for what it shows as increasing (rather than diminishing) gaps in its enrollment of low-income and minority students. Underrepresented minority students made up 3.6 percent of Vermont's undergraduates in 2004, while 2.7 percent of the state's high school graduates that year were members of minority groups. In 2007, the university's student body was virtually identical -- 3.5 percent minority -- but the representation of such students among high school graduates had risen to 3.7 percent, so the university took a sizable step backward by Education Trust's calculation. (This year, the percentage of minority students has risen to 5.8 percent, Lucear said.)

Similarly, Education Trust's method of assessing Vermont's representation of low-income students is skewed by the university's unusual student body, Lucear notes. The group compares the proportion of the university's students who receive Pell Grants (17 percent) to the proportion of Pell Grant recipients among all Vermonters who attend college in the state (28 percent), and the ratio of the two puts the university in the middle of the pack.

But because it receives among the least state funding of any public university, Vermont gets a disproportionately large percentage of its students (nearly 70 percent) from out of state, and those students, like most out of state students at public colleges, tend to be wealthier than in-state students. A full 24 percent of the state residents who attend UVM are eligible for Pell Grants, Lucear said, which would have put Vermont near the top of the Ed Trust chart on low-income access.

"I don't think that this provides an accurate portrayal of the current situation or the progress that UVm has made in serving lower income students or students of color," Lucear said, echoing concerns expressed by other college officials. "This suggests UVm's heading in the wrong direction, whereas I would say we're doing a good job and moving in the right direction."

Education Trust officials acknowledged that their data, which are current as of 2007, captured a picture of the landscape for minority and low-income students relatively early in the selective universities' campaign to expand financial aid and more aggressively recruit more low-income students. "What we don't know is whether these [financial aid] efforts are not generous enough, or not well-known enough, whether students are making other choices because they perceive these institutions as not being hospitable enough, or whether it's just too early," said Haycock.

But from her group's standpoint, Haycock said, the most important point is that the flagship universities are still making huge sums of their precious financial aid money available to woo upper-income students in what, in her view, is a misguided effort to build institutional prestige rather than serve their states' neediest students.

"These institutions are wealthy institutions, they have lots of dollars to use for student financial aid, and what they choose to do with that money says a lot about what they care about," she said. "And they're choosing to use it not on students who cannot afford to go to school without that support, but on students who would go to college no matter what."


Institution Name % of Students Eligible for Pell Grants 2007 % of State's College Students Who Are Pell-Eligible 2007 Low-Income Student Access Ratio 2007 Low-Income Student Access Ratio 2004 Change, '04-07
U. of Alaska Fairbanks 25.6% 27.8% 0.92 1.00 -0.08
U. of Alabama at Tuscaloosa 18.7% 44.7% 0.42 0.47 -0.05
U. of Arkansas Main Campus 21.7% 48.6% 0.45 0.49 -0.04
U. of Arizona 23.6% 48.6% 0.49 0.45 0.04
U. of California at Berkeley 33.0% 38.2% 0.86 0.86 0.00
U. of Colorado at Boulder 14.1% 40.4% 0.35 0.41 -0.06
U. of Connecticut** 16.9% 30.4% 0.56 0.55 0.01
U. of Delaware 8.7% 25.0% 0.35 0.43 -0.08
U. of Florida 23.2% 40.6% 0.57 0.55 0.02
U. of Georgia 14.1% 49.2% 0.29 0.31 -0.02
U. of Hawaii-Manoa 21.9% 25.8% 0.85 0.84 0.01
U. of Iowa 17.4% 40.3% 0.43 0.52 -0.09
U. of Idaho 35.2% 46.3% 0.76 0.74 0.02
U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 17.2% 34.4% 0.50 0.53 -0.03
Indiana U. at Bloomington 15.7% 37.4% 0.42 0.57 -0.15
U. of Kansas 16.7% 36.5% 0.46 0.42 0.04
U. of Kentucky*** 17.8% 47.8% 0.37 0.67 -0.30
Louisiana State U. 17.1% 44.1% 0.39 0.41 -0.02
U. of Massachusetts at Amherst 23.2% 26.7% 0.87 0.89 -0.02
U. of Maryland at College Park 16.6% 31.5% 0.53 0.54 -0.01
U. of Maine 30.0% 38.4% 0.78 0.83 -0.05
U. of Michigan at Ann Arbor 13.4% 38.7% 0.35 0.36 -0.01
U. of Minnesota-Twin Cities 21.1% 34.6% 0.61 0.64 -0.03
U. of Missouri at Columbia 16.7% 41.6% 0.40 0.42 -0.02
U. of Mississippi 23.8% 55.1% 0.43 0.40 0.03
U. of Montana 35.2% 39.4% 0.89 0.87 0.02
U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 15.3% 39.0% 0.39 0.38 0.01
U. of North Dakota 20.4% 30.9% 0.66 0.72 -0.06
U. of Nebraska-Lincoln 19.4% 32.7% 0.59 0.60 -0.01
U. of New Hampshire Main Campus 15.6% 25.1% 0.62 0.60 0.02
Rutgers U. at New Brunswick** 28.7% 33.8% 0.85 0.81 0.04
U. of New Mexico Main Campus** 39.0% 42.8% 0.91 0.70 0.21
University of Nevada-Reno 13.3% 23.8% 0.56 0.57 -0.01
State University of New York at Buffalo 31.3% 43.5% 0.72 0.78 -0.06
Ohio State University-Main Campus 23.0% 43.8% 0.53 0.58 -0.05
University of Oklahoma Norman Campus 22.7% 40.1% 0.57 0.56 0.01
University of Oregon 22.9% 39.3% 0.58 0.65 -0.07
Pennsylvania State U. Main Campus** 26.5% 36.3% 0.73 0.53 0.20
University of Rhode Island 20.6% 25.9% 0.8 0.70 0.10
U. of South Carolina-Columbia 20.8% 44.0% 0.47 0.52 -0.05
U. of South Dakota 34.0% 45.6% 0.75 0.77 -0.02
U. of Tennessee at Knoxville 22.0% 45.5% 0.48 0.50 -0.02
U. of Texas at Austin 23.8% 41.1% 0.58 0.49 0.09
U. of Utah 24.5% 34.7% 0.71 0.72 -0.01
U. of Virginia 9.5% 31.6% 0.30 0.25 0.05
U. of Vermont 17.3% 28.0% 0.62 0.62 0.00
U. of Washington-Seattle Campus** 24.2% 37.9% 0.64 0.55 0.09
U. of Wisconsin-Madison 13.1% 27.9% 0.47 0.51 -0.04
West Virginia U. 26.3% 41.2% 0.64 0.54 0.10
U. of Wyoming 22.4% 35.0% 0.64 0.70 -0.06
Total 20.4% 39.1% 0.52 0.54 -0.02

Data for UConn, Rutgers, New Mexico, Penn State and Washington are based on their university systems, not the individual campuses, because data were unavailable. Data for LSU are excluded from the total because of the exceptional circumstances of Hurricane Katrina, and for the University of Kentucky because of discrepancies.


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