The halftime festivities of many big-time college basketball games feature a contest in which one student gets the opportunity to sink a halfcourt shot or series of shots for a chance to win a car or some other large prize. Paying off a winning prize is expensive, but the organizer doesn’t really have to worry about it since the odds of success are so low.
For the past few years, elite colleges and universities have taken a similar approach to admitting low-income undergraduates. They’ve unveiled some very generous “grand prizes” in the form of making college free for low-income students, eliminating loans for others, or capping payments for improperly defined “middle income” individuals. But while this makes for a big payoff, the school doesn’t have to worry too much—they can keep costs down by controlling who they let in and the extent to which they sell these policies to lower-income students.
To an elite institution, these policies are a win-win calculation: good press for seeming generous, but it doesn’t have to worry about going too far in letting in these more expensive low-income students because it doesn’t take a proactive approach to recruiting them and convincing them to apply. Instead, the financial aid policies of elite colleges and universities are implemented passively—increase awards, hope that more poor kids apply, and by osmosis, accept more low-income kids. It’s like holding a secret half court contest and hoping that enough students show that some will make the shot and gain admission.
Not surprisingly, this aid expansion strategy has not been particularly successful. Princeton, for example, has had generous aid policies for years, yet just 10 percent of its student body receives Pell Grants (a reasonable indicator for low-income students). At Harvard, 14 percent of its students are Pell Grant recipients, putting it just on average with the 75 wealthiest institutions, many of which do not have such generous financial aid policies.
So why hasn’t the “If you build it, they will come approach” worked for elite institution’s aid policies? Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford professor had an interesting suggestion on the New York Times’ Choice blog:
“If you are a low-income student and you have good qualifications and you apply to Princeton or Yale, you are going to be accepted,” said Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Stanford. “The problem is really that there are many low-income students out there who are able to fulfill admissions criteria at these schools but are not applying.”
Hoxby’s evidence for this statement is more than anecdotal. She is working on a paper due out later this year, which found that the likelihood of a qualified low-income student applying to an elite institution is just 8 percent. Even with generous aid packages, Hoxby found that many students are turned off by the sticker shock. “A low-income student who applies to Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton is not going to pay a dime,” she told the Choice, “but it’s not clear whether that message gets out to them.”
What Hoxby’s findings certainly suggest is that if institutions are truly committed to improving their socioeconomic diversity, then they need to do more just announce a new policy with a flashy press release. Instead, admissions officers should do a better job visiting lower-income high schools, forming relationships with guidance counselors where they can, and generally take a more proactive approach to identifying promising lower-income students. Admittedly, this is labor intensive and has some costs, but without a greater commitment, these generous financial aid policies will be little more than a flashy exercise with little risk of significant success.