Thirty universities across the nation — including the University of Washington — have pledged to do more to get strong students from lower-income families into top colleges and universities.
The American Talent Initiative, as the effort is called, follows on the heels of recent studies that show many low- and middle-income students with top grades don’t end up enrolling in the nation’s top universities.
That’s in part because they’re less likely to be surrounded by people who attended selective colleges, and they don’t think about applying to those schools. And while selective schools often have high tuition costs, many low-income students would qualify for generous financial aid.
The UW already has a good track record of offering admission to low-income students, said Rickey Hall, the UW’s vice president of minority affairs and diversity. About 28 percent of its undergraduates are eligible for the federal Pell grant. Students whose total family income is about $50,000 or less generally qualify.
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The UW also has a strong track record of offering financial aid to those who need it. About a third of in-state undergraduates qualify for Husky Promise and attend the UW tuition-free.
But Hall said the university could do better with college completion rates. About 79 percent of Pell-eligible students graduate from the UW in six years. That’s slightly below the average for non-Pell students, which is about 84 percent. “We’d like to close that gap,” he said.
Why do more low-income students fail to graduate? Hall said there are a variety of reasons. Some leave school because their financial aid runs out, and they can’t afford to finish. Others leave because they struggle to keep their grades up, or have to drop out because of a family emergency.
Hall said the UW is piloting tools to help quickly identify students who are struggling academically, so they can be offered support and tutoring before they fall too far behind. And the UW is reaching out to students who dropped out with only a few credits needed to finish their degrees, and helping them earn their diplomas. “We’re getting those students back, and finding out why they left,” he said.
All these steps are important, Hall said, because in the coming years, Washington’s high-school graduates are projected to be more diverse, and many more will come from families where neither parent went to college.
The American Talent Initiative is funded with an initial $1.7 million, multiyear grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. That money isn’t intended to help the schools reach low-income students, though.
“It’s on the institutions themselves to try to boost those numbers,” Hall said.
Rather, the money will be used to fund research to figure out what kinds of recruitment activities work best for incoming students, and what kinds of interventions are best for students in danger of dropping out.
The colleges and universities that are part of the initiative will share lessons and institutional data. The schools have set a national goal of enrolling 50,000 additional lower-income students by 2025.
The initiative is being coordinated by two nonprofits, the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and Ithaka S+R. Some of the other universities involved include Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Duke, Yale, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of North Carolina.