A period of dramatic shifts in the aid policies of some of the most elite private colleges in the United States has had only the most modest impact on the enrollment of low income students at these institutions. But these colleges saw gains in the share of their students in the top quintile of wealth who received financial aid.
These are the key findings of a study presented in Atlanta Monday at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association. The study was based on detailed information about colleges that are members of the Consortium on the Financing of Higher Education,  which includes the eight Ivy League universities; other leading national universities such as Stanford and the University of Chicago; and top liberal arts institutions such as Amherst, Bryn Mawr, Carleton and Swarthmore Colleges. The data in the study are grouped in various ways, but a condition of providing the figures was that breakouts for individual institutions would not be reported.
Two of the authors of the study -- Catharine B. Hill, president of Vassar College, and Gordon C. Winston, an economist at Williams College -- have done a series of research projects on the demographics of students at top private colleges, and various financial aid policies that might attract more low-income students.
The other two authors of the new study are David Davis-Van Atta, director of institutional research at Vassar, and Rishad Gambhir, also of Vassar.
The new data largely update an analysis done in 2001-2, prior to a series of aid enhancements by private colleges that have either eliminated or significantly reduced loan expectations for many students. While all of the colleges in COFHE have in some way become more generous to low-income students in the years since, many have also greatly raised the income levels at which students can receive aid. In some cases, families with incomes well into the six figures are receiving aid from these colleges. The changes have resulted in reductions in average "net price" (what a family actually pays) as a share of sticker price (the quoted tuition and fees), largely through the elimination or reduction of loans, and their replacement with grants.
Despite all of these changes, however, the study found that the share of students from the bottom 40 percent of family incomes at the collected colleges increased by only 1 percentage point between 2001-2 and 2008-9, to 11 percent.
At the other extreme of income, the changes in aid policy appear to be having a real impact. The share of students at these colleges in the top quintile who receive financial aid grew from 14.5 percent to 18 percent.
Those concerned about economic diversity in higher education may be relieved to know that the study found no evidence that the additional aid going to the wealthiest students is coming from a reduction in aid to everyone else. Rather, the study said, the colleges’ shifts in aid policies have simply expanded the share of the wealthiest students who are deemed eligible.
The study found slight differences among the COFHE members. The Ivy League universities saw the greatest gains in the share of students from the lowest 40 percent of income levels -- from 9.6 percent to 11 percent of their student bodies, a 15 percent gain. Women’s colleges experienced only a 1 percent gain. But although the women’s colleges in COFHE have notably smaller endowments than the Ivies, they started off enrolling a larger share of students from the bottom 40 percent of family income: 13.6 percent.
The authors of the study acknowledge that there are multiple possible explanations for why proportionally fewer students from lower income groups enroll at elite private colleges, and that one theoretical reason could be that there aren’t enough students from these income levels who meet the highly competitive admissions standards of these colleges. But the study notes that previous research by Hill and Winston  -- using standardized test scores as a proxy for college ability -- found evidence that there are significant numbers of low-income students who could succeed in elite colleges but who don’t end up there.
The results presented Monday will be further refined, the authors say. While they note the small impact that the aid changes have had on enrolling more low-income students at elite private colleges, they express worry that even that progress could be endangered.
The aid shifts analyzed were all adopted before the economic upheavals of the last 18 months, which have shrunk the endowments that helped pay for the aid enhancements.
“It would be unfortunate if the small increase in the share of low-income students at these schools is not sustained or is reversed as a result of current financial pressures,” the paper says. “If recent changes in loan policies are maintained, sustaining the progress made on access at these schools will mean finding increased resources for financial aid just at a time when endowment resources have come under significant pressure.”