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The American Talent Initiative was launched by 30 colleges and universities.

American Talent Initiative

A new effort to enroll low- and moderate-income undergraduates at colleges and universities with high graduation rates is being announced today in an attempt to have more students from modest backgrounds graduate from prestigious campuses seen as opening doors to top careers.

The effort, called the American Talent Initiative, aims to add 50,000 highly qualified students from modest backgrounds to campuses with high graduation rates by the year 2025. A group of 30 colleges and universities have signed on to the initiative, which is being coordinated by the nonprofit Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and Ithaka S+R. Bloomberg Philanthropies is providing $1.7 million over two years to start the project, money that won’t go directly to colleges and universities but will be used to fund research on their efforts and related activities.

Organizers hope to add more institutions, growing the list of participating universities to 80 next year and continuing to add to it in the future. Leaders describe the effort as a commitment to expanding access and boosting educational outcomes for students who aren’t from wealthy families but do have good grades and other markers of academic preparedness. In the initiative’s announcement, they even conjured images of well-known 20th-century legislation that expanded access to higher education like the GI Bill, the Higher Education Act and the Civil Rights Act.

The effort’s supporters believe it can drastically change who goes to college and their ability to attend the country’s top institutions. But some critics were unimpressed or underwhelmed. They pointed out that many of the participating institutions are private, wealthy colleges that have failed to enroll large numbers of low-income students in the past -- and that may have limited capacity to take on substantial numbers of such students in the future, since many of these institutions are committed to remaining relatively small. Others worried the effort may not spell out specific enough steps to boost enrollment of  low-income students or call for an aggressive enough timeline to meet the needs of poor students today.

The initiative is built on research showing that low-income students and students of color have limited access to top colleges and universities, said Josh Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. At least 12,500 low- or moderate-income students per high school cohort have excellent academic credentials but do not end up enrolling in colleges or universities where a minimum of 70 percent of students graduate. At the same time, the top 270 colleges by graduation rate enroll fewer Pell-eligible students than the national average. Just 22 percent of their student bodies are Pell eligible, on average, compared to roughly 40 percent of other four-year institutions.

“I think the real question is, if you’ve got a problem across these top-performing colleges that is persistent, we know the students are out there, and we know the students can actually succeed, what can we do about it?” Wyner said.

Colleges and universities taking part in the initiative will focus on recruiting students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, retaining low- and moderate-income students, and cutting gaps in graduation rates between students from poor and wealthy backgrounds. They will also prioritize need-based financial aid.

That list of priorities isn’t detailed. Some colleges participating award all of their aid based on need, but others have substantial non-need-based aid programs. The lack of detail will allow for different colleges and universities of varying size to find strategies that work for them, Wyner said.

Some institutions have expanded outreach by reaching out to high-performing charter schools in low-income neighborhoods, or by virtual advising. Helping students with the full range of financial needs they have -- for fees, extra expenses and room and board instead of just tuition -- can help with retention, Wyner said. Shifting financial aid budgets to need-based aid or pouring more into the need-based budget has been an effective aid strategy.

“All of our work will be aimed at finding the practices at institutions that have walked the walk,” Wyner said. “These institutional efforts have been written about sporadically. We’re interested in creating a movement.”

Initiative members will share their findings and publish aggregate data on their progress toward the 50,000-student goal.

The 30 institutions that have signed on to the initiative vary greatly in size and enrollment of low-income students. They include Pomona College, which had 1,663 undergraduate students in the fall of 2015, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. The data show 20 percent of the college’s students were Pell eligible in 2014-15. Washington University in St. Louis, meanwhile, had 7,504 students and 7 percent Pell eligibility. The initiative’s participants range up to Ohio State University with 45,289 students and 21 percent Pell eligibility.

Pell eligibility is not a perfect proxy for the low- and moderate-income students the initiative is targeting -- institutions may be setting their own targets for moderate-income students from families making $64,000 per year or less, Wyner said.

The 30 colleges and universities that have agreed to participate in the initiative enrolled a total of just under 360,000 undergraduates in the fall of 2015, according to NCES data. That means adding 50,000 low- and moderate-income students raises a significant question of capacity.

There is no one blueprint for how the low- and moderate-income students will be added, according to Martin Kurzweil, director of the educational transformation program at Ithaka S+R.

“Different institutions will emphasize different strategies,” Kurzweil said. “Looking in the rearview mirror, Amherst College did a lot of this work by increasing the size of the student body. There are other colleges that have reallocated. Vassar is an example of an institution that didn’t grow substantially but was able to almost double the number of Pell students it took in.”

Ohio State will need to improve its graduation and retention rates, said Michael Drake, the university’s president and a member of the American Talent Initiative steering committee. It’s also planning to increase the number of students it graduates.

“That doesn’t displace anyone,” he said. “It means that we just have to do a better job.”

It’s clear organizers will need more institutions to sign on if they are to meet their 2025 goal. They say they hope to eventually add as many of the top 270 colleges and universities by graduation rate as they can.

But the challenge becomes even more clear when you look at the number of students receiving Pell Grants across the country today. That number is 430,000 among the top 270 colleges and universities, according to Wyner. If the American Talent Initiative is successful, it will grow to 480,000 -- nearly 12 percent growth.

Meanwhile, the identity of the colleges being targeted in the initiative is one major line of criticism. Some argue that to truly help more low- and moderate-income students graduate, you need to pump money into the public colleges and universities they attend -- often nonflagship state universities. While the low-income students who are admitted to Harvard thanks to this program will certainly benefit, critics say, the overall problem of access to higher education won't be addressed, since most low-income students will never be admitted to these institutions.

The initiative has several public institutions participating, like Ohio State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Maryland at College Park and two top University of California campuses. But it is also filled with small, private and wealthy colleges.

“All these elite institutions are dumping tons of scholarship money on the A and A-plus students,” said F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University. “It’s the A-minus and the B-plus and the B students that aren’t getting anything dumped on them. They end up going to the local public institutions in scale.”

About 20 percent of LSU’s student body is Pell eligible.

Small private colleges promised to become more affordable and enroll more low-income students in 1972 in exchange for direct student aid, Alexander said. But he charged that they haven’t followed through. He also questioned whether they will enroll enough students to make a difference, calling the new initiative “window dressing” that would not make a dent in the number of low-income students in college.

“I think they’re feeling pressure now that they have not delivered on their promises,” Alexander said. “They are skimming off the top, and they will continue to skim off the top and take the top-notch students, but they will have no impact on the economics of these regions, because they don’t have any scale.”

Alexander was formerly president at California State University, Long Beach, and he pointed to that institution’s demographics. Half of its undergraduates -- nearly 16,000 students -- received Pell Grants in 2014-15.

“That’s right now,” Alexander said. “That is every day.”

The American Talent Initiative’s goals aren’t intended to meet all of the nation’s needs, said Wyner of the Aspen Institute. They’re intended to be achievable goals in a slice of higher education that educates 10 percent of all undergraduates.

“We’re talking about 50,000 lives in doing this work, and we’re talking about access to leadership opportunities and careers, top graduate schools,” Wyner said. “We’re talking about a lot of the professions that you gain much greater access to if you go to these institutions.”

Harold O. Levy, the executive director of a major scholarship provider, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, also stressed that point.

“The more selective institutions have had a consistently better result,” Levy said. “That’s what this is about. We’re finally recognizing that low-income kids, notwithstanding that they don’t take Kaplan courses, they don’t get the same kind of enrichment during the summers, can themselves be really in the first tier of students.”

Levy was supportive of the new initiative. But he also acknowledged that there is likely an element of self-preservation at work for many of the participating institutions. Projections show the number of U.S. high school graduates flattening and students becoming more diverse in the next several years, which many say puts pressure on colleges to enroll more minority and low-income students.

“This is a real opportunity for whoever gets it right,” Levy said. “The low-income kids turn out to be among the smartest, most capable, most creative kids in the whole class, and that’s because they didn’t get there on the backs of wealthy parents. They got there because of their own creativity, stick-to-itiveness, wit.”

Tiffany Jones is the director of higher education policy for the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on students of color and low-income students. She voiced another concern, worrying the 2025 timeline is far off when high-achieving students aren’t going to top colleges today.

It will also be important to remember that the students aren’t numbers to be manipulated, according to Jones. She called for examining why more low-income students haven’t been attending institutions that are part of the American Talent Initiative.

“I do think there has to be understanding of who these students are, the types of support they need,” she said.

American Talent Initiative Participating Institutions


Undergraduate Enrollment, Fall 2015

% Receiving Pell Grant, 2014-15 (All Undergraduates)

Amherst College



Bates College



Davidson College



Dartmouth College



Duke University



Franklin & Marshall College



Georgetown University



Georgia Institute of Technology



Harvard University



Johns Hopkins University



Lehigh University



Ohio State University



Pomona College



Princeton University



Rice University



Spelman College



Stanford University



University of California, Berkeley



University of California, Los Angeles



University of Maryland, College Park



University of Michigan, Ann Arbor



University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill



University of Richmond



University of Texas at Austin



University of Washington



Vanderbilt University



Vassar College



Washington University in St. Louis



Williams College



Yale University



*Chart source: Federal data. Some institutions say the figures do not accurately reflect their enrollments. Harvard, for instance, says the above Pell percentage counts thousands of nontraditional students in the university's extension school, a majority of whom are not enrolled in degree programs.

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