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Wash U prioritizes need-based aid after years of low socioeconomic diversity

Washington University’s Brookings Hall on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at its Danforth Campus in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Washington University’s Brookings Hall in December 2021 at its Danforth Campus in St. Louis. The university has quadrupled its portion of Pell-eligible students in the past decade

Washington University in St. Louis — criticized a decade ago for rock-bottom low-income enrollment — says it has carved out spaces for economically disadvantaged students as part of a new plan to increase need-based aid.

Late last year, the university announced that 21% of its freshmen were Pell eligible, meaning they showed financial need after filling out a federal student aid application, and 17% were the first in their families to attend college.

Currently, Pell-eligible students make up around 18.5% of Ivy League students and 40% at other institutions, according to a study by policy analysts at the HEA Group.

Washington University recently shifted to “need-blind” admissions, meaning financial status is not considered in a student’s application, and replaced any need-based loans with scholarships.

In 2013, The New York Times quoted former Chancellor Mark Wrighton saying need-blind admissions were “not our highest priority.” That year, 6% of its first-year students were Pell-eligible.

Now, with nearly a four-fold increase in Pell-eligible students, current Chancellor Andrew Martin is seeing a change in the campus.

“We were basically ignoring a lot of our lower income students in the past because we were on a limited financial aid budget and so the quality of the student body is better,” he said in an interview with The Independent. “The socioeconomic diversity also provides geographic diversity and greater racial and ethnic diversity.

“It is just a much more interesting student body. And that diversity helps create a much richer learning environment for everyone.”

Martin believes the university’s strategy could apply to other colleges hoping to increase socioeconomic diversity.

A new start

Washington University Chancellor Andrew D. Martin speaks on Monday, May 15, 2023, during a commencement ceremony on the campus in St. Louis.
Sid Hastings
Washington University
Washington University Chancellor Andrew D. Martin speaks last May during a commencement ceremony on the campus in St. Louis.

Martin took over as chancellor in 2019, and said he made education access “one of the three pillars of my leadership.”

“It is so important for us to go and find students with incredible talent wherever they happen to be,” he said. “There are a lot of talented students, particularly across Missouri and around the country who can’t afford a Washington University education, so we need to make it possible for them to be able to afford it.”

During the 2019-2020 school year, Washington University students paid an average of $27,233 after grants and scholarships, according to data reported to the U.S. Department of Education. A decade prior, students paid an average of $31,391, or $37,355 adjusted for inflation.

Based on this data, the average cost of attendance has decreased 27% over 10 years. Still, administrators have continued to unveil new options for students with financial need.

The “WashU Pledge,” announced during Martin’s inauguration, provides funding for any costs not covered by federal grants for students whose families make $75,000 or less a year. Students from Missouri and from 51 counties in the southern Illinois region are eligible.

“We had been hearing that some of the best students, that are lower income students, from the state were choosing to leave the state to go elsewhere,” Martin said. “And we thought that that was a real missed opportunity.”

Martin said universities interested in adopting a similar model should look into how many low-income students they can fund.

“If you don’t do it in a financially sustainable way, it’s obviously not going to last for the long term,” he said. “It is harmful for a university to bring in a large group of lower income students in one year and then the following year, say, ‘We can’t admit that many, so we’re gonna have to pull it back.’”

It may mean taking a slower approach, he said.

Martin also recommended having “comprehensive student support” for first-generation and low-income students.

“This isn’t about remedial coursework,” he said. “This is about taking incredibly talented students, some of whom have had limited opportunities, and how do they navigate a place that’s foreign to them?”

Eyoel Binyam, 22, of Atlanta, has his photograph taken alongside Washington University’s Olympic Rings after receiving his degree in Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology on Monday, May 15, 2023, at Washington University.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Eyoel Binyam, 22, of Atlanta, Georgia, has his photograph taken alongside Washington University’s Olympic Rings after receiving his degree in Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology last May at Washington University.

Washington University has a center, established in 2014, that seeks to do just that.

Mark Kamimura-Jiménez, the university’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs, works with students in the Taylor Family Center for Student Success — a key part of the university’s strategy for retaining low-income students.

There are a few cohorts catered to low-income and first-generation students, one being the Taylor Stars program. Kamimura-Jiménez said these cohorts allow students to connect with one another and university-provided resources, like guidance counselors specific to them.

There is also a physical space for students to study, talk, play games and build relationships in the center. Kamimura-Jiménez told The Independent it is like “another home space for them on campus.”

“It is a dedicated space for them to be able to ask questions that they may not feel as comfortable asking in other spaces,” he said.

Mentorship and tailored academic advising, he said, is integral to lowering attrition rates.

U.S. Department of Education data shows that 93% of Washington University’s students graduate within eight years of beginning classes, including 87% of Pell-eligible students. Martin said his goal is to get those rates to be as close as possible.

The goal of bringing first-generation students through graduation is growing nationally, with more philanthropy being devoted to this population.

Nick Watson, senior program officer for college program success at Bloomberg Philanthropies, said graduation rate is a focus of the nonprofit’s work through a program called the American Talent Initiative.

The American Talent Initiative seeks to graduate low- and moderate-income students at top universities through its 135 affiliated public and private colleges. Washington University is the only Missouri school in the program and has additionally launched into a related program, the Kessler Scholars Collaborative.

“The American Talent Initiative, in some ways, is a macro project of how do we get more students to college from lower income backgrounds,” Gail Gibson, Kessler Scholars’ executive director, told The Independent. “The opportunity for the Kessler Scholars project to work within that is more of this kind of micro examination of once we have low-income and especially first-generation students into institutions, what’s the experience of those students on the ground?”

Kessler Scholars Collaborative began at the University of Michigan, thanks to the generosity of alumni Judy Kessler Wilpon and Fred Wilpon, with its first set of students in 2017. By 2020, the scholarship program partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies to expand.

Washington University welcomed its first Kessler Scholars last fall as one of 16 campuses accepted into the collaborative program.

The students are grouped into a cohort and equipped with mentors, career advising and a stipend.

“Research in higher ed has shown us that students who are part of a sort of smaller subset like a cohort based community do tend to perform better over time,” Gibson said.

Although Washington University already promises students they shouldn’t need to take out a loan to afford school, the Kessler Scholars program still provides money to its cohort. Gibson said participating campuses sometimes change the usage of the stipend, but it typically funds study-abroad expenses and internships she says first-generation students often miss out on. It can also be used as an emergency fund in some situations.

“Michigan found that actually if they were to offer these kinds of emergency grants for students to not miss opportunities, they actually would persist and graduate at the same rate of higher income peers,” Watson said.

Kessler Scholars participants at the University of Michigan graduated at nearly the same rate as peers whose parents had a bachelor’s degree, with 83% of Kessler participants graduating in four years compared to 84% of students not identified as first-generation.

Gibson said the program plans to publish its findings on best practices to improve these rates in hopes that more colleges will adopt policies to embrace first-generation and low-income students.

University of Missouri
The University of Missouri-Columbia doesn’t have any specific grants for first-generation students.

Beyond Washington University

Watson said a “perfect storm” of three factors may spur more need-based aid: a new federal student aid application, the redefinition of federal student aid and the end of affirmative action.

He said some colleges predicted the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down race-based admissions and were proactive.

“I do think a lot of particularly selective institutions got smart and started thinking about what would happen if we can’t use race in how we make holistic decisions around admissions right. So people started to look at other proxies, whether that was Pell and eligibility or whether that was first-generation status,” Watson said.

But the idea of meeting financial needs isn’t groundbreaking, he said.

“If you ask me if need-based aid is anything new? I don’t think so at all,” Watson said. “I think it is getting more attention because all these perfect storms are coming together.”

Gibson also predicts an increased focus on family income in coming years.

“First-generation status is not a perfect proxy for race or ethnic minority status. But it is one way to assure that your campus reflects more of a community and that it is a more diverse place than it otherwise would be,” Gibson said.

Watson said universities that want to support first-generation students and add socioeconomic diversity must make the mission a financial priority.

Washington University funds its need-based aid through its endowment fund, expendable gifts and the operating budget. Martin told The Independent that the university spends 4-5% of its endowment for grant programs, and he spends time traveling and promoting philanthropy.

“In terms of our operating budget, this is just putting our money where our mouth is,” he said. “We talk a good game about supporting first-generation, lower income students. By allocating our existing resources for that purpose, as opposed to other purposes, is us living up to that commitment.”

“They want their scholarships to help students who otherwise might not be able to afford to attend the college or help them ease the burden of attending college and provide more access and affordability to more students."
Emily Haynam, executive director of student financial aid at the University of Missouri, on donor-support for need-based scholarships.

The net cost of attending a public, four-year college increased at a rate of 4.7% between 2019 and 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The price of going to a not-for-profit university rose 4.8% in the same period.

The net cost rose more than the price of tuition and fees, showing a trend of declining aid nationwide.

Washington University is a private college, so it does not receive money from the state budget. Public universities must operate by a different set of rules, including a dependence on state lawmakers to allocate funding.

Missouri’s higher education budget shakes down to around $5,944 per full-time-equivalent student, according to an analysis of state budgets by the National Science Board. Missouri ranks 38th in higher education funding on a per-pupil basis in this report.

Emily Haynam, executive director of student financial aid at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said donors are more likely to give to need-based aid than merit-based.

“They want their scholarships to help students who otherwise might not be able to afford to attend the college or help them ease the burden of attending college and provide more access and affordability to more students,” she said.

The university doesn’t have any specific grants for first-generation students, but it does consider Pell eligibility.

In 2018, the University of Missouri-Columbia added the “Missouri Land Grant” — unaffiliated with its federal funding as a land-grant university — that covers up to five years of tuition for Pell-eligible students from Missouri.

Haynam said the University of Missouri, like Washington University, has been “steadily growing our expenditures of scholarships.”

But admissions look different at the two colleges.

Martin said Washington University receives over 30,000 applicants for 1,800 seats.

“There are some colleges and universities that need to offer merit aid in order to be able to attract the very best students,” he said. “For those institutions, it’s really important that they continue to do that. We don’t need to do that in order to be able to recruit the very best.”

Christian Basi, director of public affairs at the University of Missouri-Columbia, told The Independent part of the college’s recruitment process is traveling to high schools statewide.

“You’re talking about everything from rural to urban and everywhere in between, our admissions team, it’s their job to make sure that we’re reaching a broad student body that would consider going to Mizzou,” he said.

Basi said the university has made small tweaks over the past eight years to lower the cost of services like dining and books.

“That kept us much more affordable than many of our other competitors that students were looking at either in-state or out-of-state,” he said.

Martin said he recently talked with a student from out of state who wasn’t considering a college education until a high-school counselor showed him colleges with extensive financial aid.

“He has been quite successful in our business school, and it’s life changing,” Martin said.

He feels excitement from students in need-based programs, saying many delve into their studies.

“It really engendered a lot of excitement among our student body and our entire community because we’re all pulling together,” he said. “This administration and the students and the faculty and the staff and our donors all piling on resources and focusing on a single goal is really paying off in terms of the quality of students we are able to recruit.”

Annelise Hanshaw is an education reporter for The Missouri Independent.