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Alarming stories about increasing economic stratification at America’s selective colleges frequently appear in the news media. But this genre of education journalism comes with several caveats. Much of the research on economic stratification at selective colleges relies on data with limitations that tend to restrict how comprehensively or accurately studies can assess the incomes of students enrolled at selective universities, particularly over time. Studies that use quality data tend to find that the share of students at selective colleges who are low income has remained remarkably stable since the turn of the century. But even these often suffer from a narrow scope, such as outlier universities or the Ivy League.
In this report, we set out to address some of the limitations in the literature on enrollment at selective universities and test the popular narratives related to this topic. We use a data set that few researchers have enlisted for this type of analysis, the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, and we define selective colleges as the 200 most selective public and private institutions nationally. We also conduct a separate analysis for public flagship universities.
We do not find evidence that the share of students enrolled at these 200 institutions who are from the lowest income quartile declined during the years covered in our study. Students from high-income families were a growing share of enrollment at these institutions in the mid-2000s. Meanwhile, the share of students at selective colleges who are from middle-income families has steadily declined over time, particularly students from the third income quartile.
Alarming stories about economic stratification at America’s selective colleges are everywhere. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation ran a headline on its website in 2017 stating, “Report finds flagship universities becoming instruments of social stratification.”1 In earlier research, the Education Trust concluded that elite public universities were becoming “engines of inequality” because they were enrolling fewer students from low-income families.2 A recent study by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education “adds to the growing body of evidence that our nation’s higher education system is becoming increasingly stratified,” according to one reporter.3 When the New York Times covered this issue in 2017, the headline read, “Some [private] colleges have more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60.”4
Most of these reports and articles focus on trends that the authors say contribute to declining access at selective colleges for students from low-income families. They implicitly link cuts in per-student funding for public universities,5 increasing merit-based financial aid,6 rising tuition prices, more competitive admissions standards, and a boost in out-of-state students to conclude that the share of students at selective schools who are from low-income families must be in decline.7
It is logical to assume that such trends would work against low-income students’ representation at America’s most elite colleges. And it is easy to believe reports that find increasing economic stratification at selective universities given that the total cost of attendance has increased rapidly. Admission rates have also declined at some of these institutions, suggesting that they have grown only more competitive.
But narratives surrounding low-income students’ representation at selective schools often rely on incomplete evidence. Data limitations tend to restrict how comprehensively or accurately studies can assess the incomes of students enrolled at selective colleges and universities, particularly over time.8 Even when data are available, reports and research often focus on outlier examples or a small number of institutions, such as the Ivy League.
Some studies do take a comprehensive approach, however, and generally find that the share of students at selective colleges who are from low-income families has changed little since the early 2000s. We review the existing literature on the income distribution of students at selective colleges in a later section.
In this report, we set out to address some of the limitations in the literature on enrollment at selective colleges and universities. We also aim to test the popular narratives, such as whether students from low-income families are in fact less represented at selective colleges than in the past; whether public flagship universities are shutting out low-income students to enroll more high-income, out-of-state students; and whether rising prices have made selective colleges less affordable for low-income students after factoring in financial aid.
We use a data set that few researchers have enlisted for this type of analysis: the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS). The NPSAS is a nationally representative data set of undergraduate college students maintained by the US Department of Education.9 An advantage of the NPSAS is that we can more directly observe the family incomes of students instead of using proxies such as whether students received Pell Grants. The NPSAS allows us to cover a long time period, the 1999–2000 to the 2015–16 academic years. We focus our analysis on the students who attended the 200 most selective public and private colleges and universities in the country by admission rates and test scores.10
We find that, contrary to popular perceptions, the share of students at the 200 most selective colleges who are from low-income families did not decline over the period we studied. Also at odds with popular perceptions, the share of low-income students at public flagship universities has not declined since 1999–2000. This suggests that the trends that many argue have pushed low-income students out of selective colleges, such as rising prices and increases in out-of-state enrollment, have not had that effect on a national level.
We also find that, after factoring in grant and scholarship aid, annual net tuition prices at selective colleges have increased by only $1,358 for low-income students since 1999–2000, after adjusting for inflation. For high-income students, the increase was $8,162.
Consistent with the popular narrative, we find evidence that the share of students who are from high-income families increased at both selective institutions and public flagship universities during the mid-2000s. However, due to data limitations, it is unclear whether these trends continued or reversed in later years.
The strongest trend in the data is a decline in the share of students in the middle two income quartiles. In other words, the enrollment gains of high-income students in the mid-2000s came at the expense of middle-income students. This trend has received relatively little attention from the education community and the national media. It suggests that the narrative regarding income stratification at selective colleges is only half right. Enrollment at selective colleges has changed over time, but it is middle-income students, not low-income students, who are becoming less represented on these campuses.
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