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Public Colleges Do Poor Job with Minority, Low-Income Students, Study Says

Many of the nation’s top flagship public colleges are “turning their backs” on qualified low-income and minority students, the Education Trust said Wednesday in presenting data from a new report.

While the recession has hit large public colleges and universities hard, many of these institutions continue to devote large sums of institutional financial aid on more affluent students, the Washington, D.C.-based group reported. Overall, institutional aid provided by colleges to affluent students with family incomes of at least $115,000 a year increased 28 percent from 2003 through 2007.

“Too many flagship institutions are literally turning their backs on academically qualified, low-income and minority students in favor of the children of the elite,” said Education Trust President Kati Haycock.

“In some states, the top-ranked private university is now more diverse than the public flagship. It’s almost as if some of America’s best public colleges have forgotten that they are, in fact, public.”

In the study, Opportunity Adrift, the Education Trust says this trend is particularly harmful for low-income students. The typical poor student at public colleges has an unmet financial need equal to 70 percent of his or her family’s annual income.

As a result, Haycock noted, many high-achieving, low-income students are attending open-access institutions where they face added pressures of simultaneously holding a job at the same time they attend class.

The largest public colleges and universities also made little progress in enrolling students of color since the Education Trust’s last report on the topic in 2006. Despite some colleges’ bold assertions of progress in this area, the report said, minority enrollment is up only slightly in recent years. Factoring in growth in the number of minority high school graduates, there is no gain on this issue of diversity.

“They made a hair’s worth of progress in minority access but it will take 50 years to catch up with their peers,” Haycock noted.

The report showed some significant differences between minority representation in high school and subsequent enrollment of these cohorts at public colleges. For example, minority students represent 38 percent of South Carolina’s high school graduates. Yet they are only about 11 percent of the freshman class at the University of South Carolina.

Low-income students also are under-represented at institutions such as the University of Michigan, the report noted. Overall, nearly 39 percent of students attending Michigan colleges and universities receive Pell Grants. Yet among University of Michigan students, only 13 percent receive Pell Grants, an indication that low-income students in the state are going elsewhere.

“Given the critical role flagships play in preparing a state’s future business, civic and political leaders, they must be willing to compete as aggressively for high-achieving low-income and minority students as they do for rankings, running backs, or research grants,” said Dr. Jennifer Engle, Education Trust’s assistant director of higher education.

Overall, colleges spend the same amount of grant aid on students with family incomes above $80,000 a year as they do on those earning less than $54,000 annually. As a result, many college-qualified, low-income students don’t attend flagship public universities.

“Our highest achieving poor kids seem to be earning degrees at rates below our lowest achieving rich kids,” said Haycock. “This is an enormous waste of talent that our country cannot afford.”

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