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Flagship Institutions Serve Whiter, Richer Student Body, Study Says


The leading public flagship universities are disproportionately serving a Whiter and wealthier student body than in the past, according to a new report by the Education Trust. 

The report, “Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities,” shows how students in entering and graduating classes at institutions such as Pennsylvania State University or the University of South Carolina look less and less like the state populations those universities were created to serve.

The report also looks at financial aid practices at these institutions, and shows how financial aid resources are allocated away from low-income students, mostly to compete for high-income students who would enroll in college regardless of the amount of aid they receive.

“At a time when more and more low-income and minority students are preparing for college, it is disturbing that many of our most prestigious colleges and universities are turning away from them,” says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust and a co-author of the report.

According to the report, between 1995 and 2003, flagship and other public research universities decreased grant aid by 13 percent for students from families with an annual income of $20,000 or less. Meanwhile, aid to students from families who make more than $100,000 skyrocketed 406 percent. The report adds that presidents of colleges often point to the poor quality of many of the nation’s urban public high schools, which serve a large number of low-income and minority students.

“Given their special role in developing their states’ future business, academic and political leadership, leaders of flagship universities should feel a special obligation to provide opportunities for talented state residents of all races and economic groups,” says Danette Gerald, the report’s co-author. “But over time, that obligation has been replaced by the relentless pursuit of increased selectivity and ever-higher rankings.”

The study also includes a report card that grades each university’s commitment to access for low-income and minority students. Both the University of Alabama and University of Georgia received ‘F’ grades, while West Virginia University and the University of Vermont received grades of ‘A.’

Though minority students comprise more than 35 percent of Georgia’s high school graduates, they represented less than 7 percent of the entering 2004 freshmen class at the University of Georgia. 

“The shifting of financial aid resources away from students who genuinely need more support shows that these schools are not merely victims of bad choices by policymakers or bad preparation in K-12. The data make it very clear that these universities are independent actors in shrinking educational opportunity in their states,” Haycock says.

“Even most HBCUs are not competing for the top Black kids,” she told a group of higher education reporters at a meeting held earlier by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media in Phoenix.

The report recommends that the flagship institution’s examine graduation rate gaps between different groups of students. It also suggests reallocating funds so the bulk of tuition assistance goes to students who wouldn’t be able to afford college without it.

“The flagships occupy a special place in cultivating the next generation of leaders in their states. With their special status comes a special responsibility to combine excellence with equity,” Haycock says. “The flagships need to reaffirm their historic commitment to opportunity and set a new course.”

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