Rich Schools, Poor Recruiters

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

February 22, 2021

By James Murphy

The National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) has released its 2020 report on university endowments, identifying the wealthiest universities and colleges in the nation. If only that list intersected more with the universities that enroll large numbers and proportions of low-income students

In 2019-20, approximately 31% of all undergraduates received Pell Grants, which typically go to students from households with incomes below $60,000 (i.e., slightly less than the median income for a family of four in the United States.). Of the institutions with the 100 largest endowments, only 6 of them enroll students with Pell Grants at a rate over 30%. 

The NACUBO list makes it clear that richest schools often do the poorest job when it comes to recruiting low-income students. For instance, Harvard University once again topped the list with an endowment worth $40 billion–more than the GDP of many sovereign nations, but it ranked near the bottom of the 581 institutions that made the NACUBO rankings and shared data on Pell enrollment with the Department of Education. The University of Notre Dame was ranked number 8 for its almost $12 Billion endowment, but it came in at 574 for its 11% Pell share.

It should be noted that universities and colleges are commonly restricted in how they can spend the funds generated by their endowments. Many of them do use a portion of their endowment to help pay for financial aid, which explains why the actual cost of attending many of the wealthiest institutions is very low…but only if you actually attend one of them. The issue at many of the richest schools, which are frequently need-blind, seems to be less stinginess than a failure to identify, recruit, and enroll students who are not wealthy. 

A highly selective university like UCLA enrolls a student body where 33% of undergrads have Pell Grants, but Stanford and the University of Virginia have Pell shares that are not even half UCLA’s. Perhaps it is time for them to look seriously at their recruitment strategies in order to figure out what they are doing wrong.

The table below ranks 581 institutions by the average percentage of their enrolled undergraduates with Pell Grants in 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19, and pairs that data with the NACUBO ranking of endowments in 2020.