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University of Dayton's campus. The university is one of 128 who are official members of the initiative.

Getty Images/Ian West

An initiative aimed at enrolling more low-income students in top-tier colleges is on track to complete its goal. But the most recent data show a concerning slowdown of the project's results.

The American Talent Initiative, managed by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and Ithaka S+R, began in the 2016-17 academic year with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Its goal is to enroll 50,000 more low- and moderate-income students at institutions with graduation rates of 70 percent or higher by 2025. While the initiative tracks data from 320 U.S. institutions that meet this criteria, only 128 are official members.

Between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 academic years, the 320 institutions with high graduation rates enrolled 20,696 more students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants, about 40 percent of the initiative's ultimate goal.

However, data collected so far for the 2018-19 academic year showed that continued progress isn't a guarantee. Of the data collected from 120 member institutions, there was a net aggregate increase of only eight Pell-eligible students during that time, according to the report.

While data from all of the qualifying colleges are not yet available, member institutions made up most of the progress in previous years. Members accounted for 54 percent of all undergraduates enrolled at the eligible institutions, but they made up 62 percent of the progress toward the ultimate goal.

Those working on the initiative said this is a reminder that the goal needs to remain a priority at colleges.

"It’s something we’re focusing on very intensively and something that I would say significantly increases our sense of urgency around the mission," said Martin Kurzweil, director of the educational transformation program at Ithaka S+R.

Still, he said, "leveling off in one year is not necessarily a sign of what will happen over time."

Success in Dayton and San Diego

Some of the challenges institutions face in meeting this goal include the upcoming demographic cliff, declining state investment and a decrease in the yield of lower-income students.

Eric Spina, president of the University of Dayton in Ohio, said resources are the biggest challenge.

With an endowment of less than $100,000 per student, the university is not the wealthiest on the list, Spina said. But, as a Catholic institution, Dayton wants to uphold its values and have a consistent identity.

Historically, the university offered opportunities to lower- and middle-income families, he said. But recently that shifted to more affluent students as the university's tuition became more expensive. In joining the initiative, Spina said Dayton is focused on returning to its roots.

The university is doing well so far. About 260 Pell-eligible students, not including transfer students, enrolled at the University of Dayton in the fall of 2016. By this past fall, that number had risen to 420.

"For us, that's kind of a record," Spina said. He hopes to eventually get in the 20 percent range for Pell-eligible students in an incoming class.

Dayton has created several programs and initiatives to increase its enrollment of Pell recipients. Eight years ago, the university eliminated fees, which led to a higher graduation rate and a lower borrowing rate. It also offers fixed tuition rates across the total four years.

One program is the Flyer Promise scholarship, which takes in about 50 Pell-eligible students each year, often the first in their families to attend college, from certain partner high schools. It lowers the total annual cost of attending the college from just shy of $60,000 to $7,500, which students can cover with work-study and loans, Spina said. The retention rate for these students is 99 percent, he said.

Dayton also has partnered with Sinclair Community College to admit students to both institutions at the same time and to lock in their aid and costs at Dayton before transfer students set foot on campus.

These efforts come at a cost, though. While eliminating fees helped retain students, Spina said it also led to a decline in net tuition revenue.

"As a result, we have to make harder decisions about the budget," he said.

The university now is trying to do "less with less." It's examining what's most important to the mission and what could be trimmed to help support what's most important. For example, Dayton has grown its graduate programs extensively over the past few decades, Spina said. And a committee is examining what programs are in demand, what's central to the university and what could be trimmed.

"There are no sacred cows," he said. "This is the moment to look really carefully at what we’re doing."

In contrast, the University of California, San Diego, has added the most Pell-eligible students so far -- 1,642 students, which is about 400 more than the next highest institution.

One of their key programs is the Chancellor's Associate Scholars Program, which helps admitted students from California with family incomes of $80,000 or less.

It provides up to $10,000 per year, supports parents in understanding the challenges students face in college and helps first-generation students learn the language of a university.

The program is possible due to donations, according to Alysson Satterlund, vice chancellor of student affairs at the university.

"The challenges have always been the financial support to support it," said Ebonee Williams, interim assistant vice chancellor for student retention and success. The university overcame that challenge with commitment from leadership, donor dedication and efficient programming, she said.

Prioritizing this work will be important if colleges want to actually move the needle, according to Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at the Education Trust.

"You have to decide that meeting the needs of low-income students is more important than rankings," Jones said.

Part of that shift would come from changing the admissions process, such as by going test optional or eliminating legacy admissions. Another aspect would be redirecting resources toward need-based aid instead of merit-based aid.

Over all, Jones said she is excited about the work the initiative is doing. Colleges need to take responsibility for serving low-income students, she said.

But, she said, "it’s important to be aware that increasing the enrollment of low-income students is not the same as addressing equity as whole," as reports have shown.

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