Elite Schools Looking for Diversity

I  spent some time yesterday afternoon listening to  Peter Johnson, the dean of admissions at Columbia University, talk to a dozen or so attentive students at High Tech High in San Diego.  The visit from an Ivy League admission dean at my son’s school isn’t as unusual as you might think. During the fall, it’s common to see admission officers from places like Swarthmore, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford presenting themselves at the front desk at High Tech High. In fact, the list of schools that will visit in the next two months looks like a convention of US News’ college alpha dogs.

The reason why elite schools visit is because High Tech High has something that the prep schools in places like Greenwich, CT, Lake Forest, IL,  Scarsdale, NY and Mercer Island, WA, do not. The school is a melting pot that attracts affluent students and an even larger number of students of color, many of whom have parents who did not go to college.

In higher-ed circles, there has been a great deal of debate about the efforts of elite schools to attract minority students. Curiously, it’s private, less selective colleges, which don’t enjoy large endowments, that underwrite the education of more of these students. In my book, The College Solution, I quote the president of St. Lawrence University, who had this to say about the phenomenon:

“The wealthiest colleges and universities – those that can best afford the financial aid necessary to enroll a large number of low-income students — in fact enroll the smallest percentage of such students.”

Actually, Columbia does a better job than most in attracting these kids. Yesterday afternoon Johnson bragged that 17% of Columbia’s students receive federal Pell Grants, which is the proxy used to measure the number of low-income students.  US News’ recent ranking of the top national universities by economic diversity bears Johnson out.  Columbia has more Pell Grant recipients than any other private college. It beats out University of Southern California by one percentage point. On the flip side, candidates for the hall of shame would certainly include Washington University in St. Louis (7%) and the University of Virginia (8%).

By far, the two universities with the most Pell Grant recipients is UCLA (35%) and UC Berkeley (32%).

You can find a handy list of top national universities and their Pell Grant percentages by visiting a New York Times blog post in The New York Times entitled, Poor Students at Rich Colleges.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and the college blogger at CBSMoneyWatch.com.

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