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Cornell Gets No Credit For Pell Grants

As a nice follow-up to the discussion that Elie had a couple weeks back on enrolling more lower-income students at a school like Cornell, David Leonhardt of the New York Times has an excellent article today on how colleges systematically overlook low-income students in their admissions practices:

For all of the other ways that top colleges had become diverse, their student bodies remained shockingly affluent. At the University of Michigan, more entering freshmen in 2003 came from families earning at least $200,000 a year than came from the entire bottom half of the income distribution. At some private colleges, the numbers were even more extreme...

Does more economic diversity necessarily mean lower admissions standards?

No, it does not.

The truth is that many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home. Doing so makes them less likely to graduate from college at all, research has shown. Incredibly, only 44 percent of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college, according to a Century Foundation report compared with about 50 percent of high-income seniors who have average test scores.

The extent of wasted human capital, wrote the report authors, Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, is phenomenal.

The article spends a lot of time lauding Amherst College, which has increased its percentage of students on Pell Grants from 13 percent to 22 percent over the last five years. Which is great and all, but really isn't that big of a deal once you compare it to Cornell's numbers, which have increased from 13 percent to 16 percent in the same time frame (Page 42) and have traditionally stood above the rest of Cornell's Ivy and other top private research university peers.

But, you say, Cornell's 16 percent is surely lower than Amherst's 22 percent.

Sure, but Amherst only educates 1700 undergraduates a year. Cornell educates 14,000.

Put another way, Cornell educates 500 more students on Pell Grants than Amherst has students, or six times (!) as many Pell Grant recipients. Let that sink in for a moment. And Cornell's increase in Pell Grant coverage from 13 to 16 percent represents an increase of 400 students -- more than double Amherst's increase in absolute numbers, and surpassing Amherst's total Pell Grant population.

But do you want to know the kicker? Amherst has an endowment per-student that is three times larger than Cornell's, meaning that it can afford its "generosity" all that much more.

That's not to say that Cornell shouldn't be doing more to increase low-income student enrollment. But that's a story for another day.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on May 25, 2011 (#)

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