September 24, 2015

By Liam Kerr, DFER-Massachusetts State Director

Mass. Democrats for Education Reform sent a “secret shopper” to 11 elite Massachusetts colleges and universities to get a glimpse at how good a job these schools are doing in supporting the relatively small number of working class and low-income students enrolled. online_mystery_shopping

The results either call into question the veracity of the colleges’ responses to prospective students and families who ask about their prospects for success or suggest some racially disparate phenomenon at work. Either way, these colleges have work to do.

Under the Higher Education Act, colleges and universities are required to disclose graduation rates of working class and low-income students (i.e. Pell Grant recipients) to anyone who asks. They do not have to report the data to the U.S. Department of Education or any other central body. So we sent a trained, secret shopper to ask individual colleges for their data. To check its quality, we matched the schools’ disclosures to our shopper against other graduation rate data the colleges are required to report to the U.S. Department of Education. The results surprised us.

First though, know that for all the shining quality of our institutions of higher education, Massachusetts has a disproportionate number of colleges that rank among the worst in the nation when it comes to working class and low-income student enrollment. Every school to which we sent a shopper enrolls such a small percentage of working class and low-income students (ranging from 8.6% – 15.5%) that they place in the bottom 5% of all colleges nationwide in terms of working class and low-income student access. Before you make an argument about the available pool of quality applicants to excuse these schools, know that low-income students account for one in five top ACT test takers (i.e. scoring in 90th percentile or higher). In fact, every college we surveyed but one ranks in the bottom of its peer group nationally of similar colleges with similar admissions standards in terms of working class and low-income student enrollment.

From a societal standpoint, the colleges we studied don’t advance socioeconomic mobility. They calcify inequality. Unfortunately, Massachusetts has three times the number of colleges that rank as “engines of inequality” as compared to the State’s share of colleges and universities overall.

Our hypothesis was that these engines of inequality don’t treat working class and low-incomes students too well once enrolled; that the isolation of working class and low-income students on campus probably depresses that subgroup’s degree completion rate as compared to more affluent classmates–thereby making these colleges even worse when it comes to supporting socioeconomic mobility. Our thinking was that these elite colleges don’t admit enough working class and low-income students and don’t provide those admitted with enough financial aid and additional support to make sure they succeed.

The Results

But the elite Massachusetts colleges we studied reported virtually no gaps in completion rates between wealthy and low-income students. Hmm. That’s great if correct, but it’s also surprising given the gaps those same schools report by race to the U.S. Department of Education.

Now to be clear, we’re not suggesting all enrolled low-income students at these schools are members of underrepresented minority groups, nor are we suggesting all underrepresented minority students at these schools are low-income. Nevertheless, nationally there is a disproportionate amount of overlap. Even if the economic class and race overlap at these Massachusetts colleges is less than is present nationally, you’d expect that if there are sizable degree completion gaps by race (which there should not be) at these schools, there would be significant degree completion gaps by income as well. But that’s not what a majority of the colleges studied say.

We can only think of three explanations. Either:

(1) the veracity of the data a majority of these schools are disclosing to prospective students and families about working class and low-income student degree completion is, well, suspect;

(2) at least some of these colleges are doing a more successful job serving poor black students than rich black students; or

(3) at least some of these colleges are serving white working class and poor students much more successfully than underrepresented minority students.

In fact, a national research and advocacy organization released brand new graduation rate data today that point to discrepancies at two colleges in our analysis: Emerson College and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Whereas those colleges told our prospective student there was virtually no graduation gap between high-income and low-income students, they disclosed much larger gaps to the research organization: 10 percentage points. The discrepancy points to explanation number one above – at least in the case of Emerson and WPI.

Maybe there’s another explanation. But no matter how you interpret the data, one thing is clear. Boston College, Boston University, Holy Cross, Emerson, Franklin Olin, Hampshire, Harvard, Mount Holyoke, Northeastern, Tufts, and WPI all should be making a more meaningful commitment to student body diversity and socioeconomic mobility.

Nationally, the general public provides engines of inequality like these 11 universities nearly $1 billion in federal student aid funds each year, not to mention even more valuable tax-exempt status. The public doesn’t demand much in the way of outcomes in return. It’s long past time we did.


Liam Kerr is the Executive Director of Massachusetts Democrats for Education Reform.