Economic Diversity on the Decline at U.S. Public Colleges, Study Shows

Conservative Think Tank Publishes Analysis of Colleges and Upward Mobility

Socioeconomic diversity is on the decline at public four-year colleges in the U.S., according to The New York Times’ third annual College Access Index.

Using public Pell Grant program data, the index ranks both public and private colleges and universities — only those with a five-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent — on their dedication to economic diversity. Taking into consideration the number of low-income students these schools enroll, how much they charge these individuals to attend, their graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients, and their endowments, the College Access Index highlights how well these 171 institutions are serving students from the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution.

Schools in the University of California (UC) System lead all other colleges in economic diversity, with UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, UC San Diego, and UCLA ranking one through five — all with a 1.52 or higher on the index. The most economically diverse private schools include many elite institutions, including Ivy League and women’s colleges such as Amherst College, Pomona College, Harvard University, Vassar College, Williams College, Princeton University, and Yale University.

Those at the bottom of the list include Bryant University, Elon University, Saint Joseph’s University, Emerson College, and the University of Puget Sound; each has a 0.42 or lower on the index.

Although some institutions continue to do a good job enrolling and graduating low-income students relative to other campuses, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt told NPR that socioeconomic diversity is on the decline at many public U.S. colleges. For instance, at UC San Diego, despite its high ranking, the Pell Grant share of the freshman class dropped from 46 to 26 percent — which Leonhardt attributes to state budget cuts.

Public schools, he said, have less money to enroll low-income students; because of this, some are actively recruiting those from wealthier households — and others, Leonhardt said, “are probably not admitting the lower-income kids.”

“I find this really worrisome because investments in education, historically, have really paid for themselves,” he told NPR. “The idea that we’re making it harder for lower- and middle-income Americans to go to flagship public universities strikes me as really short-sighted and self-defeating.”

According to Leonhardt, colleges and universities have been largely effective at increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of their student bodies but have lagged behind in economic diversity.