ST. LOUIS — An annual price tag that tops $52,000 aside, Washington University’s commitment to luring more low-income students is hard to question.
Its financial aid director makes a personal enrollment pitch to each Pell Grant-eligible student who gains admission. The highly selective private school gave out nearly $70 million in scholarships to nearly 60 percent of its undergraduates last year. And the school regularly welcomes academically talented high schoolers with disadvantaged backgrounds, from Chicago public school students in the Target Hope pre-college academy to the 500 minority students in the high school Class of 2011 who enjoyed an all-expenses paid glimpse at campus life one recent weekend.
But the 158-year-old school ranks dead-last among the nation’s 50 wealthiest schools when it comes to enrolling low-income students. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education review of federal data found that fewer than 6 percent of the school’s roughly 8,500 undergraduates received Pell Grants, which are generally limited to students whose family income is below $40,000. Over the past several years, despite its best efforts, those percentages have actually declined slightly.
“The challenge for us is always, will they enroll?” said John Berg, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate admissions.
WashU’s struggles to recruit more qualified students from poor families mirror those of other elite public and private universities, even as a growing chorus of higher education experts suggests that when it comes to affirmative action on campus, class — not race — is the more entrenched dividing line between the haves and the have-nots.
In general, recent efforts to improve college access for low-income students tend to succeed more often in community colleges and less selective state schools, experts say. And if the more selective schools don’t bend their admissions standards, that can mean cut-throat competition for the comparatively few poor students with the necessary academic chops.
“A meritocratic system would provide a lot of affirmative action to economically disadvantaged students who beat the odds and a little bit of affirmative action based on race,” said Richard Kahlenberg, an author and education researcher with The Century Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “Yet today’s colleges and universities do the opposite; providing substantial preferences based on race and virtually no preferences based on class.”
The Chronicle review found that less than 15 percent of undergraduates at the 50 colleges and universities — both public and private — with the largest endowments received Pell Grants in 2008-09, the most recent year for which federal Department of Education statistics are available.
That’s an improvement of less than one percentage point from five years earlier, a time when many elite schools began making a concerted effort to boost the ranks of poor students By comparison, about 26 percent of students at non-selective public four-year schools receive Pell Grants.
Among the wealthiest schools, the Pell Grant rates range from 5.7 percent at Washington University in St. Louis to 30.7 percent at the University of California-Los Angeles.
At Harvard just 6.5 percent of undergraduates received Pell Grants, the Chronicle reported.