$1M Prize Encourages Colleges To Recruit Lower Income, High Achieving Students

April 8, 2015  |  

Colleges, especially elite institutions, aren’t exactly checking for low income, high achievers. Accepting students from humble families, according to The New York Times, means having to take a huge bite out of the budget to supplement their education. There’s no incentive — well, until now.

A new $1 million prize, fashioned by Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, just might encourage universities to reconsider recruiting more smart students from low socio-economic backgrounds. According to the NY Timesthe award is bestowed to any college that strives to promote economic diversity within its student body.

And this year’s winner is —  drumroll please — Vassar College.

About 25 percent of students attending Vassar College, located in Poughkeepsie, NY, qualify for Pell Grants, which means they come from the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. income distribution. The average annual price tag of attending Vassar College as a low-income student, after taking scholarships into account, is about $6,000, according to Upshot.

“The Cooke prize is the latest sign of the momentum around socioeconomic diversity — and, by extension, upward mobility — in higher education,” New York Times said.

Harvard, Amherst, Pomona and the state universities of California and North Carolina, to name a few, are also making moves to be more inclusive of students from humble beginnings. All have managed to increase their low-income enrollment.

But of course, there are laggards in the U.S. higher education system that need to work on being less homogeneous (a.k.a not overwhelmingly White, male, and affluent). If you do the math, NY Times said, universities cringe at the costs of subsidizing low income students. Colleges spend five percent, at most, of their endowments on scholarships and grants:

“Sustaining one poor student who needs $45,000 a year in aid requires $1 million in endowment devoted to that purpose,” NY Times added, “100 of them require $100 million.”

“A lot of it is just about money, because each additional low-income student you enroll costs you a lot in financial aid,” said Michael Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. “No one is going to talk openly and say, ‘Oh, we’re not making low-income students a priority.’”

College presidents are under constant pressure to meet their budgets, boost graduation rates, and improve their rankings. And although many lower income students are intelligent, they often have lower SAT scores than their affluent counterparts. This can harm the college’s ranking.

The best way to combat a money-driven system is to bait ’em with more money. Vassar College plans to spend its $1 million award on its orientation program and scholarships for undocumented immigrants.

The prize, according to Cooke Foundation Executive Director Harold O. Levy, is “the answer” to stagnating social mobility.

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