Pell No! New Data on Colleges That Under-Enroll Talented, Working Class Students

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

October 27, 2020

By James Murphy

The Department of Education has released new data on college enrollment, including the number of undergraduate students at each university who received a Pell Grant. In 2018-19, almost 7 million college students received a Pell Grant, which typically goes to individuals from households earning less than $65,000 per year. That’s almost half the households in America, so it’s no surprise that about 31% of all postsecondary students currently receive this federal assistance.

At too many colleges and universities, however, the share of students with Pell Grants is unconscionably lower than the national average. At some institutions the Pell share is in the single digits. By failing to enroll anything close to an adequate share of low-income and working-class students, these colleges and universities are turning their back on a basic American commitment to social mobility.

Here is the latest data on the 20 worst four-year colleges and universities in terms of enrollment of students from working class and low-income families as measured by Pell Grant award, excluding those that accept no financial aid.

You might hope that these numbers at least reflected some improvement from previous years, but in fact at most of these engines of inequality the share of students receiving Pell Grants shrank since 2011. At High Point University, which has been criticized for its aggressive recruiting tactics, the Pell share dropped an incredible 40%.

It’s not just the worst offenders that are going in the wrong direction, however. Pell shares at three-quarters of the so-called Ivy Plus schools remained flat or declined over the past decade, despite increasing attention to college access during the period. Princeton and Columbia’s improvements do prove, however, that a university can increase access to low-income students, but it has to make that commitment. Check out Princeton, which moved from second worst to second best among Ivy Plus schools.

Nineteen out of the twenty least accessible colleges in America are private colleges, but that does not absolve them of their obligation to make a meaningful commitment to diversity. They all receive vast sums of taxpayer funds in the form of federal financial aid and research support. Common decency aside, they have a clear obligation as non-profit institutions to serve the public, as long they are happily receiving our tax dollars.

Although public colleges and universities enroll many more low-income and working-class students, not all of them are doing their part. These are the ten worst public universities in the nation in term of Pell share; notably, four of them are in Virginia.

Interested in seeing where your alma mater stands on access and whether it’s going forwards or backwards? We created a table to make it easier to see how colleges are doing. If your alma mater is not serving low-income students, we encourage you to reach out to them on Twitter and share this blog.

You’ll be glad you did.


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