Standing at the center of Union College’s campus last week, senior Andrew Guyatte recalled the moment he was accepted. It wasn’t a sure thing for Guyatte, and a lot rode on how much financial support the college would offer.
“I wanted somewhere that was affordable to go; that was the main goal,” said Guyatte, who is part of the college’s Academic Opportunity Program, AOP, which targets financially-needy students who likely would not make it to Union without extra financial and academic support.
“I knew I had the extracurriculars and grades to get in, but the money part was concerning … If I didn’t get financial aid I wouldn’t be able to attend,” he said.
When Guyatte, a Capital Region native, received his Union acceptance letter four years ago, it came with one condition and one big promise: Join the AOP program, commit to a five-week summer program before school starts and Union will cover tuition, room and board and books.
Few of Guyatte’s classmates, especially outside of the roughly 120 AOP students across all years, come from families eligible for Pell grants – federal aid that goes to students like Guyatte from families that earn less than $50,000 a year – or even close.
The median family income of a Union College student is $152,600, and two-thirds of students come from families in the top 20 percent of the income scale, according to a New York Times analysis of a study by The Equality of Opportunity Project, a collaboration of Stanford and Harvard researchers, released earlier this year. Just under 15 percent of Union students this year receive Pell grants, a widely-used proxy for socioeconomic status.
The numbers are even starker at Skidmore: 13 percent of its student body this year received Pell grants. The college’s median family income topped $208,000 and 72 percent of the students come from families in the top 20 percent of income, according to the Times analysis. And Skidmore is the 38th of 38 colleges in the nation with more students from families in the top 1 percent of the income scale than the entire bottom 60 percent.
At Skidmore, 15 percent of students hailed from the top 1 percent – families with income of more than $630,000 – and 15 percent hailed from the bottom 60 percent – families with income of less than $65,000, according to the Times analysis, which was based on students born in 1991, roughly the class of 2013.
At Union, 12.7 percent of student came from the top 1 percent while 17.2 percent came from the bottom 60 percent. Looking at both Union and Skidmore, only Hamilton and Colgate colleges have fewer students on Pell as a percentage of all students – based on 2013 numbers – among all liberal arts colleges in New York. RPI fares slightly better but wouldn’t provide its most recent Pell numbers or someone to speak about economic diversity for this article.
Union and Skidmore, however, aren’t the only private selective colleges that skew heavily toward affluence. Broader income inequality trends in the country are mirrored – some argue exacerbated – at colleges. While complex economics and personal decisions feed the economic diversity challenges, researchers and policymakers are looking for ways to get more students like Guyatte on more private campuses across the country.
Union and Skidmore would both be on the bubble of colleges potentially penalized under proposed bipartisan legislation in Congress, which would require schools to increase the number of Pell grant students.
“I think there are a lot of good reasons for us trying to make our student body more diverse in socioeconomic terms and in other dimensions,” said John Brueggemann, department chairman and professor of sociology at Skidmore. “I wish we were more ambitious about that.”
‘Meeting full need’
Admissions and financial aid officials at both Union and Skidmore said they are “committed to meeting full need.” In other words, the schools consider a student’s financial need as it sorts through applications and offers financial aid packages, which draw heavily in aid from the colleges, to cover all costs above what families and students can afford to pay.
While that approach minimizes average student debt burdens, it also means that some students will not be accepted to the school because they are financially needy. In some cases, students as qualified or even more qualified than students who score acceptance letters won’t be accepted because the colleges don’t have enough institutional aid left to cover their financial need.
“We aren’t going to admit them if we can’t meet their need,” said Mary Lou Bates, Skidmore admissions and financial aid director. “For those we are admitting and supporting, we do a very good job of meeting need, and we would rather do that than spread the money around more and have more [low-income] students here and not give as good as financial aid.”
“We can only admit the ones that we can fund, that is true.”
At Skidmore, around 45 percent of its students receive some form of an institutional grant – need-based financial aid from the college that is not paid back. The average grant is just under $40,000.
While institutional aid budgets increase each year, so does tuition and other costs. The officials acknowledge that the growing financial aid investments – essentially foregoing tuition revenue – aren’t enough to boost the proportion of low-income students on campus.
Union provides institutional aid to 78 percent of its students – up from 65 percent in 2007. The average institutional grant is $32,500, and 85 percent of the college’s aid grants are based on financial need.
“We try to be as diverse as we can within budget constraints,” said Linda Parker, Union’s director of financial aid. “We are committed to meeting the full need of our students from year one to year four.”
Diversity of all sorts is an oft-cited priority of colleges; the second sentence of Union’s mission statement says the school will “welcome diverse and talented students.” A political science or sociology class discussing race and class will undoubtedly be better served by students with different racial and economic perspectives participating in the conversation.
“They increase the number of lenses through which our community views things,” Philip Poczik, director of the Union AOP program, said of the students. “That’s in the classroom, when students are talking about politics, race, economics, class, but also in other areas of campus … it increases the lenses though which we view problems.”
Of the 36 AOP students, including Guyatte, who entered Union four years ago, 34 are still there and 32 are expected to graduate this spring. As a group, the AOP students graduate at a higher percentage than Union students as a whole.
Some of Guyatte’s AOP classmates are set to go to medical school, Columbia Graduate School, join Teach for America or Americorps or head straight into private sector engineering jobs after graduation. With his double major in English and Africana studies and degree almost in hand, Guyatte is looking into teaching fellowships around the country. He traveled to Chicago last week for a final round of interviews for a teaching fellowship.
Poczik said the AOP students step into leadership roles in organizations across Union and do as much to change Union as Union changes them.
“They have a willingness to make themselves uncomfortable to expose themselves to new things; they are leaders on campus,” he said. “The students take pride knowing they are actively changing Union, actively making Union look like the place they want it to be.”
‘A question of priorities’
Vassar College in Poughkeepsie is widely considered the model of a selective college that prioritizes socioeconomic diversity and affordability.
Under the leadership of the school’s last president, Catharine Bond Hill, who stepped down last year, Vassar more than doubled its financial aid budget and the number of low-income students it served. Nearly 25 percent of its first year students receive a Pell grant. It also dramatically increased the number of first-generation college students in its entering classes.
Education can be a great equalizer in an America fraught with inequality, Hill told the New York Times last year. “Young students have to have the opportunity to go on to higher education in some equitable way,” she said. “It is more important than ever to get a bachelor’s degree, given the increasing income inequality in our society.”
Despite ever-increasing total sticker prices – which now regularly top $60,000 a year – and heated political debates over college affordability, private colleges are considering more than just access and affordability as it sets budgets and sorts through applicant pools, which at Union and Skidmore have consistently topped records in both size and diversity the last few years.
Privates colleges are looking to build a student body diverse in a variety of areas, including race, geography and academic interests. Schools have to save slots for student athletes and think about bringing musicians, scientists, legacy students and international students to campus.
They are first and foremost academic institutions: It’s noteworthy that before the diversity mention, Union’s mission emphasizes the centuries-old college “is a scholarly community dedicated to shaping the future and understanding the past.”
Another twist in the broader income inequality that drives the disparities on private colleges campuses: The expectations wealthy students have about the amenities – dorms, cafeterias and fitness – offered in college continue to grow, so schools have to invest more in those areas to keep up with the competition.
“They are running as hard as they can to keep up,” University at Albany education economist Alan Wagner said of the schools. “And it’s at a time when there is a growing concentration of prospective students from high income.”
Sandy Baum, a higher education economist with the Urban Institute in Washington and a former Skidmore professor, said private selective colleges could do a better job attracting and accepting low-income students but that they are nowhere near the root of the problem of unequal academic opportunities.
She also said the focus would be better served looking into how to improve outcomes for low-income students at public and less selective schools, where the vast majority of low-income students go to school and have worse outcomes.
“We wish that these institutions could solve a problem that, while they certainly have a role in contributing to, they are not going to solve,” Baum said.
Other higher education researchers agreed the private colleges are at least partly reflecting larger trends at play in the country. And those trends are intensifying as more wealth concentrates in fewer hands. Private colleges may only be able to change that reality on the margins, some researchers warned.
“The fundamental inequalities are going to remain regardless of what RPI does; I think that is a sobering perspective,” said Daniel Levy, a UAlbany higher education scholar. “It’s misleading to think the fundamental problem can be addressed by higher education or certainly selective colleges.”
But just because the private colleges can’t solve America’s inequality problem doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do more to make a dent, said Martin Van Der Werf, associate director for post-secondary policy at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, who has recently researched Pell grant students at private colleges for a report set to be released this week.
“The very product selective colleges are offering is great attention to students and higher levels of students services; those are the kinds of value-adds that low-income students really need and could really take advantage of,” Van Der Werf said.
He said the number of low-income students will continue to rise and that if private colleges don’t do more to open their doors to those students they will contribute to worsening inequality, reinforcing generational cycles of limited educational opportunities.
“They become engines of income inequality, exacerbating income inequality in the country,” Van Der Werf said.
Already the students are lining up at schools like Union, where Poczik said each year they have to choose around 30 AOP student from hundreds of applicants, many of whom are qualified.
“You could quadruple the number [of AOP slots], and we couldn’t serve all the students who are eligible who apply,” he said.