University ranks high in Pell Grant survey

By Simon Shifrin

The University of Chicago had the fifth-highest percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants of the nation’s 26 highest-ranked universities in 2001, according to a recent study published by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE).

Pell Grants, which provide up to $3,750 for students from low-income families, are awarded by the federal government based upon calculations of family size and total income and assets. Over half of the roughly 4 million students receiving the grant come from families with annual income less than $15,000. Students from families with income more than $35,000 are excluded.

In 2001, the University of Chicago had 551 undergraduate Pell Grant recipients, or 13.5 percent of undergraduates. The university with the highest percentage of grants was the University of California-Berkeley with 28.2 percent, while Harvard ranked last with a mere 6.6 percent.

” ranks fairly high, third among the private universities,” said Bruce Slater, Managing Editor of JBHE. “It shows that the U of C, which has been criticized by many for not making an active effort to recruit African-American students…does have a diverse student body if you just look at socio-economic characteristics.”

Administrators were pleased to see apparent evidence of the University’s ideal of economic diversity confirmed through statistics.

“I’m not entirely surprised by the results,” said Michael Behnke, the University’s dean of college enrollment. “I think the University of Chicago has always been proud of its attractiveness to first-generation families and low-income families.

“If you are the first in your family to go to college you care about value. If you’ve already got it made, why do you want to work this hard?” Behnke said.

The 26 schools on the list, drawn from rankings published by U.S. News and World Report, represent a diverse group of schools, ranging from large public universities like the University of Virginia to highly-selective private schools like the California Institute of Technology.

The variety of the schools, however, still allowed for certain comparisons, according to Slater.

“The difference between Berkeley and the University of Michigan, which are both state-supported schools, are still quite significant,” Slater said. At the University of Michigan, 11.7 percent of undergraduates received Pell Grants.

“I think shows that there’s a wide variation between the top-rated schools in the lower-income students that they enroll,” Slater said.

The study also used the change in percent of Pell Grant recipients at each university from 1991 to 2001 as a measure of commitment to economic diversity. The University of Chicago witnessed a 2.4 percent decline, compared to Cornell University’s 6.3 percent increase and the University of Michigan’s 12.1 percent decrease.

Administrators speculated that the decline in the percent of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants likely resulted from changes occurring in the college.

“We’ve become much more selective during those years and attracted a much higher number of applicants,” Behnke said. “When you become more selective you also become more affluent. That’s why admissions officers have to be particularly sensitive.”

Slater, too, affirmed that with a high selectivity comes a decrease in economic diversity.

“I think generally the very elite Ivy League schools attract students from very high-income families,” he said. “Naturally it’s going to be the students with the best academic records that would be attracted to the most elite schools.”

Claims about changes across the decade are difficult to make, however, since one or both years may be an anomaly. There was a recession in 1991, for example, which could affect a university’s ability to take on a stable rate of low-income students on financial aid. The slowing economic conditions in the last two years may also have had an effect.

“It’s certainly a factor whether a college would let in low-income students when money is tight,” Slater said. “Universities who recruit low-income students are going to have to pick up the bill for these students…A private university is going to have to kick in the other $25,000.”

The motivation for JBHE’s study was to examine an indirect gauge of racial diversity at the highest-ranked universities.

“The real tie-in is that black families in the U.S. have median incomes 60 percent of white families,” Slater said. “We’ve done plenty of studies on differences of black students. We’ve done those over and over again. This was just another way of comparing schools.”

Slater was hesitant to use the results of the study to criticize the admissions policies of any university on the list, though he remarked that there was room for improvement across the board.

“It’s a matter of what the university thinks of its priorities. It’s a matter of university preference,” he said. “I think there’s certainly room for schools to try harder to identify students from low-income areas that are academically capable that might not have the highest SAT scores.”

Behnke acknowledged that test scores are normally correlated with income and emphasized that the university has been trying to take this into account, even as average test scores of incoming classes have risen in recent years.

As an effort to more closely identify trends at the nation’s highest-ranked universities, JBHE is going to more closely monitor what they believe to be a good indicator of economic diversity.

“I think from now on we’ll keep track of it every year,” Slater said. “We’ll get a better overall idea.”