Are Flagship Public Universities Turning Their Backs on Low-Income, Minority Applicants?

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A scathing new report from the Education Trust, a national advocacy organization that focuses on closing achievement gaps, states that says many flagship state universities are turning their backs on low-income, minority youths at a time when increasing numbers of such youths are making college plans.

“Driven by commercial ranking systems that reward them more for who they exclude than for who they educate, and anxious to attract the out-of-state and other full-pay students who can help make up for declining state investments, public research-extensive universities have become less and less representative of the high school graduates in their states,” states the report, titled Opportunity Adrift: Our Flagship Universities are Straying from Their Public Mission.

To get a snapshot of how reflective flagship universities are or aren’t of the students in their states, the report looked at high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates among minority and low-income students in the spring and fall of 2007, respectively.

Whereas minority students represented 29.2 percent of high school graduates in spring of 2007, they only accounted for 13.4 percent of college freshmen the following fall, only slightly better than in 2004, when the figures were roughly 27.4 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively.

While low-income students, identified by their status as Pell grant recipients, accounted for 39.1 percent of state students, they only enrolled in flagship universities at a rate of 20.4 percent, slightly worse than in 2004, when the figures were roughly 40.8 percent and 22.1 percent, respectively.

Representatives from the American Council on Education, a higher education organization that represents university presidents and chancellors, and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities did not return calls seeking comment on the report’s findings.

The report acknowledges that lack of academic preparation on the part of low-income youths is part of the problem, but says the flip side is that  many of those underprepared youths were educated in inferior schools that spend less per pupil on their education, have less experienced teachers and lower overall expectations.

It also blames policies and trends in which non-need-based financial aid has been doled out at rates that far outpace need-based aid. It also laments the plummeting value of Pell grants, which are designed to offset the cost to attend college for low-income students.

The report finds fault with steering low-income, minority youths to community colleges, noting that per pupil spending, transfer and success rates are lower at community colleges than at four-year institutions.

The report concludes by noting that flagship universities can change the way they allocate institutional aid and resist pressure from college guides to select only students who make them look good in the rankings.

But, according to the report, changing the sociological makeup of universities really comes down to willpower.

“They don’t need a long list of recommendations from us or anyone else on what to do. Public research universities are full of smart people who are great at competing—when they decide to compete,” the report states. “They are good at competing for research dollars and endowment contributions. And they are good at competing for and succeeding with low-income students and students of color, when they choose to do that, too.

“What remains is for more institutional leaders to make that choice and for more of those who finance these institutions to insist on it,” the report concludes. “The last thing America needs right now is for its best public research universities to forget that they are public.”