Defining Economic Diversity at The New York Times’ Schools for Tomorrow Conference

At The New York Times’ fifth annual Schools for Tomorrow conference in September, speakers addressed a number of pressing issues in higher education today — low graduation rates, rising tuition costs, and issues of race, gender, and class on campuses throughout the country.

One phrase that kept coming up — on panels with university presidents, educators, and journalists alike — was economic diversity.

Economic diversity measures the number of students admitted to college who come from low-income households, rather than by the number of students from particular ethnic or racial backgrounds.

The Importance of College Access

While there are different methods for determining which colleges admit students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, the Times looks at how many enrolled students receive Pell grants, how many of these students graduate, and what they pay for their education overall. These factors are measured and compared to create its College Access Index.

According to David Leonhardt, who is the managing editor of the Times’ feature The Upshot and who hosted the conference, low-income students are less likely to apply to selective schools than high-income peers — but these economically disadvantaged students are also more likely to graduate from such colleges than they would from non-selective institutions.

Economic diversity will likely start to become a concern for more and more Americans. Leonhardt noted that across the United States, median household income has been falling for a number of years, and has not yet returned to its all-time high in 1999. Meanwhile, the cost of attending college has risen dramatically, outpacing inflation. One of the consequences is that even for middle-income families, higher education is becoming a luxury many cannot afford.

The Need for Greater Commitment

Given the economic pressure felt by many Americans in trying to attain a college education and the ostensible commitment voiced by higher education leaders to increasing access for a greater percentage of the population, why don’t all schools make economic diversity a high priority?

Most colleges say that they are “need blind,” meaning that admissions officers do not consider students’ ability to meet the cost of tuition and fees when deciding whether to accept applicants. But in reality, schools are limited in the amount of financial aid they can give to students who need it, and these constraints affect the composition of incoming classes.

Grinnell College, a small liberal arts institution in Iowa, comes in at 31 on the Times’ 2015 list; its president, Raynard S. Kington, attributed the school’s success to its high endowment and $40 million budget for financial aid. “28 percent of our students pay no tuition,” he said. “It’s about having the resources … not everyone can do what we did.”

Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar another small, liberal arts college, remarked that places like Grinnell and Vassar can do a lot to help more low-income students enroll in competitive colleges, but because of their limited size, “ultimately if we’re going to solve the problem, it’s going to have to be the public schools.”

Many state legislatures have significantly decreased their financial support for public universities, as Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago explained. He went on to note that “the public is not willing to support higher education to the same extent that they’re willing to support other priorities,” adding that, “it creates a huge stress on these systems” and makes it tougher for schools to accept students who are not well-off.

In addition to colleges like Grinnell, Vassar, and the University of Chicago, there are others that have managed to attain economic diversity as well. The University of California system has long been dedicated to providing an education for all, and other large state schools, like the University of Washington and the University of North Carolina, also enroll high percentages of students receiving Pell grants.

The Benefits of College Attainment

Many high schoolers from low-income families assume they should not apply to private colleges because of the higher tuition these institutions publish, but the Times’ Index demonstrates that this belief isn’t always accurate. Private schools typically post higher “sticker prices,” but some have also made a commitment to increasing economic diversity at their college and have significant endowments to back up this goal.

College-educated young people are much less likely to be unemployed than peers who earn only a high school diploma. The wage gap between high school and college grads, moreover, is nearly $20,000 a year, and rising.

In addition to alleviating issues of employment and income inequality, increasing economic diversity at colleges has less tangible benefits, as well. Studies suggest that class diversity improves race relations on campuses, and interacting with people of different backgrounds and experiences can broaden students’ worldviews, enhance their social abilities, and better prepare them for living and working in multicultural settings — all ostensibly goals of higher education.

The cost of college has, inarguably, gone up significantly in the past several decades, while incomes for many American households have remained flat or diminished. As a nation, the U.S. must grapple with the demands for a highly educated workforce and the difficulty for many families of ensuring that their children can participate in 21st century job opportunities in the years to come. That said, there are colleges and universities that are attempting to address this need, and The New York Times’ economic diversity rankings help in this effort.

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