Less selective schools do more to educate poorer students

Regional comprehensive universities are the workhorses that are educating the poorest university students in the United States, says a new study of more than 2,000 universities prepared for the Institute for College Access and Success based in Oakland, California.

The completion rate for students who receive federally funded Pell Grants and attend the nation’s most selective universities is higher than it is for other universities: 80% to 60%. However, the most selective universities admit less than 10% of the 2.5 million Pell-eligible students who attend moderately selective or broad access universities.

“There’s definitely a social hierarchy that we’ve created in this country, with the most selective universities, places like Harvard, Stanford or the University of Chicago, at the top,” says Dr Nicholas Hillman, professor in the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the study entitled “Pell Access and Completion Series, Part II: Public and Non-Profit Four-Year Universities” that was published by the New York-based Hechinger Report last month.

“And for the few Pell-eligible students who go to one of these schools, most graduates are launched into their careers. But these schools do not enrol anywhere near the numbers that attend lesser-known schools.”

Selectivity categories

Hillman’s report classifies universities into four selectivity categories: highly selective, selective, moderately selective, and broad access.

It shows that, despite Pell Grants and relatively generous financial aid packages, America’s highly selective universities enrol a lower percentage of Pell-eligible students than do universities in the other three categories.

After rising to about 22% of students in the late 2000s, the percentage of Pell-eligible students attending highly selective schools fell to about 15% by 2010. Among selective universities, their percentage remained in the high 30s until two years ago when it dipped to around 30%.

The percentage of Pell-eligible students has also declined from the high 30s to the mid-30s for moderately selective institutions and from 40% to the mid-30% for broad access universities.

The declines in these last three categories are likely due to COVID, while the decline among highly selective universities predates COVID and, Hillman says, is due to the Great Recession of 2008.

Assessing the impact of the “high-achieving, low-income” students on the overall impact of highly selective schools launching the nation’s poorest students into professional careers is further limited by the fact that high-achieving, low-income students recruited by these institutions are not a representative sample of such students from across the country. Highly selective schools, Hillman writes, “tend to cast a very narrow net and draw from high schools in just 15 metropolitan areas”, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

The impact of league tables

The focus on these cities, Hillman told University World News, likely has more to do with maintaining or increasing the position of selective universities in the league tables than the distribution of talented poor students across the country.

“In America we have a tiered, consumer-driven system. Recruiting students from certain schools helps universities go up in their rankings and helps universities build prestige. Recruiting students from the same places, because those students have high test scores, serves the university’s ranking, not access.”

Pell recipients who are in the highly selective schools graduate at a rate of 80%, approximately 14 percentage points lower than the rates at such schools as Harvard, Princeton and the University of Chicago. More significantly, the graduation rate of Pell recipients at highly selective schools has risen almost 20 percentage points over the past two decades.

Completion rates have also risen over the past two decades for the selective, moderately selective and broad access universities: 39% to 60%, 39% to 62% and 38% to 60%, respectively. At approximately 60%, the rate of Pell-eligible students successfully completing university is actually two percentage points higher than the overall student population, 58% of whom complete their higher education in the six years statisticians use to judge a successful completion.

According to Hillman, the figures for America’s most selective universities come as no surprise: first, because of the way these schools select students in the first place and, secondly, because these schools have the financial resources to provide academic support that students who have not had the advantages of growing up in a wealthy home might require.

“The 60% graduation rate among the other classes of universities,” Hellman says, “could be higher. And, in fact, it has been steadily rising by about 1% per year.

“But, given that these schools enrol the vast majority of Pell-eligible students, what we are looking at is a success story. They are the workhorses that educate the nation’s poorest and launch them into their careers. Their achievement is all the more notable, given that these universities often do not have the resources available to provide academic support.”

Enrolment patterns

One of the surprising findings in Hillman’s study is the percentage of Pell recipients each category of institution enrols in relation to the total number of Pell recipients in the country. The most selective public and non-profit universities enrol 3% and 4% respectively, of 3.14 million Pell recipients.

By contrast, moderately selective non-profit universities enrol 9% of the total number of Pell recipients (291,864), while their counterparts in the publicly funded system 25% of the nation’s Pell recipients or 775,775 students. Thirty-two percent of Pell recipients are in broad access public universities, while only 13% are in similar universities in the non-profit sector.

The clustering of the Pell recipients – 57% are in the public moderately selective and broad access universities – is due to the fact that, Hollywood portrayals of American higher education aside, most American university students are not at elite universities like Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or small liberal arts colleges with leafy campuses.

Rather, the majority either remain at home and commute to universities, such as various branches of New York City public university, or go to institutions less than 50 miles from their homes. It is these regional colleges that enrol and educate both the majority of American undergraduates and a majority of Pell-eligible students.

A different list of top schools

Hillman’s analysis suggests that the league tables used in the United States are irrelevant to judging the effectiveness of universities in achieving their mission.

“We should be less interested in the US News & World Report rankings that focus on A/B/C and more focused on measuring how universities contribute to social mobility. When you do that, this research suggests, you get a whole different list of top schools.

“What we see is that not only are these schools enrolling a much larger share of Pell Grant students, but their completion rate is pretty darn good. And they are deserving of much greater support from the government.”