A recent New York Times article ranked the University number 13 on its inaugural list of “The Most Economically Diverse Top Colleges.” The article, published on Monday, Sept. 8, is titled “Top Colleges That Enroll Rich, Middle Class, and Poor,” and its accompanying list ranks more than 100 schools.
These rankings were determined by the College Access Index, a new metric in higher education reporting.
“[The calculation is] based on the share of freshmen in recent years who came from low-income families (measured by the share receiving a Pell grant) and on the net price of attendance for low- and middle-income families,” The New York Times writes.
The share of students receiving Pell Grants is a key indicator of economic diversity. A change in this number over time directly reflects an institution’s effort to recruit academically strong students from high schools in lower- and middle-class communities.
The net price of attendance for low- and middle-income families is another important indicator of economic diversity on college campuses. This figure represents an institution’s commitment to subsidizing tuition and fees for low- and middle-income students. Because tuition continues to rise at elite colleges—often not including the costs associated with housing, meal plans, travel, and other on-campus expenditures—the net price of attendance is an increasingly valuable statistic.
Also featured in the Times article is “endowment per student,” which highlights a college or university’s ability to financially support students.
Some of the schools most capable of funding low- and middle-income students are failing to enroll those students. David Leonhardt, the author of the article, suggests that Swarthmore College and Washington University in St. Louis are two such examples. Their endowments per student are $970,000 and $470,000, respectively, compared to Wesleyan’s $200,000, yet they both rank lower.
Vassar, Grinnell, UNC Chapel Hill, Smith, Amherst, Harvard, Pomona, St. Mary’s (Ind.), Susquehanna, and Columbia are ranked as the top ten most economically diverse colleges. The bottom ten include Providence, Emerson, Sewanee, Wash. U. (St. Louis), Wake Forest, Santa Clara, Bucknell, Fairfield, Elon, and Whitman.
“At Wesleyan, Susquehanna and some other colleges with relatively small endowments, lower-income students make up a relatively large share of the student body,” reads the caption of a New York Times graphic, compiled from Department of Education data.
Pell Grant recipients make up 18 percent of Wesleyan’s freshman classes of 2012-2014, a significant increase from 12 percent in 2008. Wesleyan’s net cost of attendance for low- and middle-income students is $8,700. In comparison, Harvard’s is just $3,000, while Vassar’s is $5,600 and Susquehanna’s is $18,000.
John Gudvangen, Associate Dean of Admission and Financial Aid/Director of Financial Aid, explained how the University has made an effort to increase accessibility for low- and middle-income students.
“Wesleyan expanded its commitment this year to low-and middle-income families who earn less than $60,000 by packaging additional grants in place of the loans,” Gudvangen wrote in an email to The Argus. “This is an expansion from the prior level of $40,000 in total family income for no loans. We also continue to reduce loans by adding grants for many other Pell eligible students who are just above these income limits. For all other financial aid students above these income levels we’re maintaining our commitment to provide reasonable and sustainable loan levels in the regular financial aid package so that over a student’s entire Wesleyan career we expect student borrowing to be no more than $19,000.”
Gudvangen also discussed ongoing commitments to help lower-income students attend the University.
“We continue to work hard to understand each family’s situation when determining the family contribution, and we always encourage students to meet with us to help them and their families understand the aid award and to explore all the options to make Wesleyan affordable,” Gudvangen wrote.
Despite Wesleyan’s relatively high ranking, many on campus have remarked that the campus climate does not always reflect the numbers. Aidan Martinez ’17, a Quest Scholar and advocate for greater economic diversity at the University, attested to the importance of institutional support for low- and middle-income students.
“Institutional support is essential for something as invisible as income,” Martinez wrote in an email to The Argus. “To those who pay full tuition and say they are supplementing my academic life here, yes, I recognize that, and I’m so grateful, but there is so much more than meets the eye and a lot of underprivileged students don’t want to guilt you, we just need a little support. Not all of us came from the best high schools or backgrounds, and it is hard to juggle around that, getting up to speed in college, going to work-study, and thinking about debt or that $300 textbook that might kick us over the edge.”
Martinez says he believes the University has done a relatively good job enrolling low-income students but needs to work on enrolling middle-class students.
“It seems as though a huge gap has been created, and Wesleyan seeks out only the low-income, which creates an unspoken divide,” Martinez wrote. “The middle income students are the link to ground the high income students and make Wesleyan more inclusive. If we have racial diversity, it only seems logical to have economic diversity, but we need to actually speak about it.”
Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Whaley addressed the resource gaps that low- and middle-class students may encounter while navigating social and academic life on campus. He explained the solutions the University offers.
“For our part, Student Affairs has been building more support networks for low-income students, among others,” Whaley wrote in an email to The Argus. “Our strategy is to connect students with available resources and to identify ‘gaps’ that we need to remedy. We cannot, and arguably shouldn’t, attempt to completely level the playing field, but we should pay attention to students’ experiences and address those things that present educational barriers. One example of this is the recent creation, with support from President Roth, of an emergency fund in my office to support low-income students who encounter unexpected expenses.”
However, Whaley acknowledged that there is always room for improvement.
“Wesleyan’s main objective for the current capital campaign is financial support for financial aid,” Whaley wrote. “As we continue to build our capacity to give more financial aid and to meet students’ full need, we will make Wesleyan more economically diverse and open this experience to more qualified students.”