What Would Smith Do?

Forgive me for interrupting the conversation about the Supreme Court’s decision today upholding Indiana’s baleful voter ID law, which I hope will continue. But another topic for a moment: Depressing findings from the Chronicle of Higher Education . Even though well-off colleges say they’re trying hard to recruit low-income students, the numbers are going in the wrong direction. At the 75 schools with endowments over $500 million, the share of students who received Pell grants, which means they come from families that make less than $40,000 a year, dipped from 14.3 percent in 2004-05 to 13.1 percent in 2006-07. The trend is the same at the 39 tippy-top richest schools: 19.6 percent of students there were low-income in 2004-05, compared with 18 percent two years later.

The time frame under study is short, to be sure. But it also matches a period in which colleges have been talking up class diversity, and in which the idea has been floated as an alternative to race-based affirmative action. The falling numbers show that well-qualified poor applicants don’t submit applications in droves to the well-endowed schools, and that the schools haven’t really figured out yet how to find them. A few campuses have shown that it’s possible to improve at that task: The Chronicle noted schools that are exceptions to the rule because they have posted small gains: Amherst, Holy Cross, Williams, Princeton, and the Universities of Richmond and Texas at Austin. At Smith, 25 percent-plus students are low-income; at UCLA, 35 percent. What are those schools doing differently?

That’s the big question, I think. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts, but my own sense is that the answer is not the big feel-good initiative that Harvard and Yale announced this winter: expanding financial aid so that it covers families that earn up to $180,000 or $200,000 a year. As this persuasive NYT op-ed points out, most schools don’t have the money to give aid to upper-middle-class families (I hope that $200,000 a year still gets you into that category) as well as truly needy ones. And so, as the op-ed by former Columbia Dean Roger Lehecka points out, the Harvard and Yale move “sets an example that is likely to make it even harder for low-income students to attend the best college for which they are qualified.” So forget Harvard and Yale—among the private colleges, what’s Smith doing? Or Princeton or Williams or Holy Cross or Amherst?

(Cross posted at XX Factor.)