Washington University is a top-tier college, attracting both the nation’s smartest and richest students. That often puts the private university on the wrong end of rankings for socioeconomic diversity.
To reverse that distinction, Wash U is halfway through an effort to have at least 13 percent of its students be from low-income backgrounds or be the first in their family to attend college. But proponents of college access say the goal isn’t ambitious enough — and won’t help foster a different atmosphere on campus.
The median family income of a Wash U student is $272,000, the wealthiest student body in the U.S. according to a recent study from The Equality of Opportunity Project.
The annual cost to attend the school is nearly $70,000. There are some, but not many students who qualify for a federal Pell grant — given to those with the highest financial aid needs and a commonly used indicator of poverty in higher ed. The scholarship is only $6,000 a year, so Wash U picks up most of the rest of the tab for Pell grant students.
In 2014, just six percent of Wash U students were eligible for a Pell. In 2015, the school set a goal of increasing that to 13 percent, or about 1,800 of its 14,300 students. The 2016-2017 freshman class was at that mark and the incoming class is expected to be as well, according to Provost Holden Thorp.
“So, I do think we’re changing the perception in a way that’s good for us,” Thorp said in an interview.
But most elite private schools are enrolling closer to 20 percent of Pell students, said Maggie Cahalan, director of the Pell Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for more socioeconomic diversity of higher education. (The institute doesn’t give out the actual Pell grants.)
“I think it’s good that Washington University is trying to improve its Pell,” she said. “I don’t think 13 percent is really an acceptable goal.”
Thorp argued that 13 percent is only a starting point, bringing Wash U in line with the number of low-income students enrolled at comparable universities, such as Georgetown and Northwestern.
“This was something that people could rally around and we felt like we could do,” Thorp said. “And we’ve been able to do it.”
Washington University has started a support program for its growing number of Pell students. Semhar Mekonnen, a will-be sophomore from Olivette, attended a few of the meetings.
Fitting in with her richer classmates was just as tough as the classes, she said.
“The environment at an elite institution can be really daunting when everyone kind of knows each other from their vacations in the Hamptons,” she said. “It can be isolating.”
Not all students will have the same college experience, according to Anthony Tillman, an assistant provost overseeing Wash U’s Pell support program.
“What’s more important is students have an equitable opportunity to participate in various activities and events,” Tillman said.
The Equality of Opportunity Project’s study, done by researchers at several universities, also found that when poor students attend top colleges, they eventually jump into the same upper income bracket as their already-wealthy classmates.
“We now know that a college degree lifts your income prospects better than any other vehicle we have in the country,” Thorp said.
Sophomore English major Michael Williamson, who receives a Pell grant, is helping with freshman orientation over the summer break. The Memphis, Tennessee-native said Wash U felt like the right place.
“When I visited it just clicked with me more than any other school. That, and the financial aid they gave me was more generous than any other offer I had,” Williamson said.
Cahalan, from the Pell Institute, says if Washington University wants to continue to diversify its student body, it will have to do a better job attracting students like Thomas — and making them feel more welcome on campus.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Shaun Ee, an international student from a wealthy family who graduated last month. While at Wash U, he was part of a student organization that pushed for more economic diversity.
“It’s really important from a pragmatic sense,” he said, “to make sure that these people who are coming from high-income backgrounds have a chance to broaden their horizon beyond the community and the family they’ve grown up with.”
Finding a new crop
A key recruitment tool is the university’s College Prep Program, which brings in a crop of 50 high school students who just finished their freshman years at poorer school districts in the St. Louis area for a few weeks every summer.
The high schoolers sleep in the dorms. During the day, they do experiments in science labs and try out different campus recreation activities, including Zumba. There are more serious sessions too, such as discussions of race and wealth.
Students return again their sophomore and junior years of high school. Washington University accepted 7 of the first 25 students that went through the College Prep program, offering them additional scholarships. The school also gives grants to cover additional fees for Pell students — it bought Mekonnen a new suit for her business class presentations.
Brittney Thomas, of St. Louis, is part of the program. She said she passes the campus all the time, “but having the opportunity to actually stay on campus and in lecturing halls and getting sessions like this, benefiting ourselves, I really feel like that’s a good experience.”
Thomas wasn’t considering Wash U before her teacher suggested the College Prep summer program. But after a few days on campus, her mind is changing. “It’s a good school,” she said. “I wouldn’t pass it up.”
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