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Washington University Announces Plan To Increase Economic Diversity On Campus

Washington University's Brookings Hall
Washington University

Washington University has rolled out a blueprint for making the highly regarded school more accessible for low-income students.

“For Washington University to take its place as one of the great institutions of this country, we have to make sure we’re doing our part to provide opportunity,” said Provost Holden Thorp. 

Thorp said the initiative will reduce the number of students who are not admitted because they can’t afford a tuition that will top $47,000 next fall.    

“We will be doing less of that in the future,” he said.

In recent years, Washington University has earned the unwelcome reputation as the least economically diverse top-flight school in the country. Using figures from the 2012-2013 academic year, the U.S. News and World Report ranked Washington U. dead last, with only 6 percent of its undergraduates receiving Pell grants. The grants are typically awarded to students whose families fall into the bottom 40 percent of the nation’s income distribution.  In contrast, the University of California at Los Angeles, the most economically diverse of the top 25 schools, had 39 percent of its undergrads on Pell grants.

Thorp said the university’s approach to financial aid is to ensure that less well-off students have enough money to succeed in school, not just pay tuition.

“We have always erred on the side of giving good amounts of aid to the students we admit, rather than trying to admit as many people as we can,” Thorp said.

This fall 8 percent of incoming students received federal Pell grants and the goal is to increase that number to 13 percent for the freshman class of 2020, which Thorp said is comparable to similar institutions.    

“We have been working over the last several years to make (Washington University) more accessible to students of low incomes.”

The university will dedicate at least $25 million annually toward the initiative. That’s on top of $75 million in new endowment funds the university has already committed to this purpose. The money is expected to come from increased fund raising and reallocating funds from the school’s operating budget. Some money for merit scholarships, used to attract top academic recruits, will be redirected toward need-based aid. Funding the project could mean some open positions will remain unfilled and construction projects could be scaled back, Thorp said.    

“We’ve got six years to figure out precisely how this gets funding,” Thorp said.  “It’s going to be an ongoing process.”

Thorp pointed out that the university's Midwest location offers certain recruiting advantages; he noted that lower-income students often prefer schools within driving distance from their home.   

“I’m excited,” said Washington University sophomore Lauren Chase. “It’s taken Wash U. longer than many of our peer institutions to get here, but I’m glad that they’ve finally committed to improving socio-economic diversity.”

Chase, who is majoring in American culture studies and education studies, helps lead Washington University for Undergraduate Socio-Economic Diversity (WU/FUSED).  The group is a part of a coalition of student organizations at universities across the country that advocate for greater economic diversity in higher education. She said at times it seems like professors at the school don’t understand the hurdles facing students from less affluent families.

“This will be great, in terms of adding to an atmosphere that acknowledges and accepts people from various socio-economic backgrounds,” Chase said. “I think professors have tended to assume that everyone in their class can pay to go on a field trip and do all these things that not everyone at Wash U. can do.”

Thorp acknowledged that fostering a welcoming environment for lower income students is a challenge facing Washington University and similar private and public institutions.  But working to open more doors to low-income students is a first step.

“Part of our obligation is to create an environment that’s inclusive in every respect,” Thorp said.     

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