Poor college applicants struggle as strapped schools recruit those who can pay full freight.
Several years ago, Louisiana State University nixed an open-enrollment rule that had granted admission and ample financial aid to any applicant who was a state resident. Eliminating that rule was the prudent thing to do, given the tally of remedial students who entered the university but never got up to par academically, said Mary Alice Baszile, a former assistant vice provost at LSU's flagship campus in Baton Rouge.
Dropping that special allowance didn't bother Baszile much. What did alarm her were the changing rules governing a state-funded scholarship program reserved for Louisiana natives that resulted in fewer and fewer low-income black students getting fewer and fewer of those dollars.
"It means that [LSU] heavily recruits the African-American kids who have good ACT scores, good grades and, very often, come from families with some resources," she said. "The other kids can hardly get in; they often don't have a chance."
That merit-based aid has been outpacing need-based aid is but one sign that low-income blacks -- and poor students in general -- are having a harder time paying for a college degree. Now comes the news that, at a time when colleges and universities are especially cash-strapped, many schools are deliberately recruiting students who can fully finance their own education. More than half of admissions and enrollment administrators at 462 universities who were recently surveyed by Inside Higher Ed magazine admitted to recruiting students -- foreign-born and homegrown -- on that basis.
Top Dollars, Top Priority
"Colleges, especially public [ones], face enormous pressure to replace lost state revenues by seeking more full-paying and out-of-state students," said Rodney Morrison, associate chancellor for enrollment management at Rutgers University. "With the loss of state and federal financial-aid support, we are rapidly eroding access for future students."
The study's findings include these:
* 10 percent of four-year colleges surveyed reported that they are admitting full-paying students who have lower grades and test scores than do other admitted applicants.
* For doctoral programs in public institutions, 47 percent of recruiters said that enrolling full-paying students was their goal, compared with 40 percent who identified aiding low-income students as their priority. The respective figures for master's programs at public institutions were 45 percent and 38 percent.
* While 66 percent of admissions directors at community colleges say that serving students with fewer financial resources remains their central focus, 34 percent did say that enrolling more full-pay students was an essential strategy.
A bad economy is only partly to blame for the shortfalls in college revenue that are driving these new trends, said Nelson Armstrong, who retired two years ago from a career spent in admissions, alumni relations and alumni development in the Ivy League. Exacerbating the problem, he added, are bids by many colleges to appease students with state-of-the-art dormitory rooms on campuses outfitted with everything from up-to-the-minute technology to cutting-edge gym equipment.
That funneling of precious college dollars into nonacademic amenities, a shrinking endowment and other factors had Dartmouth struggling to pare a $1 million deficit during Armstrong's last year on the New Hampshire campus, where he had been director of alumni relations.
When a school is confronting a budget gap of that size, parity for a poor black kid can fall way down on the list of priorities, he said. That's a stark departure from the outreach extended to black students such as Armstrong, a member of Dartmouth's class of 1971, when he was an undergraduate.
"You saw a lot of [black collegians] back then who came out of the neighborhood, from the poorest of families, people who were the first in their generation to even go to college," said Armstrong, who also spent six years as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's associate director of admissions. "Nowadays, the very definition of a 'black student' is somewhat different. You're talking far more about black kids who come from the suburbs and kids who do not necessarily even come from America."
Some Schools Seek Balance
Money helps create that difference, said Jerome Lucido, executive director of the University of Southern California's Center for Enrollment, Research, Policy and Practice. "We're definitely seeing a bifurcation of our [college] population," he said. "But that doesn't mean that some institutions aren't trying to keep that from happening."
The University of Maryland, for example, guarantees that no student from a family whose income is at the federal poverty line -- $22,500 a year for a household of four -- will graduate with education-related debt. Those students receive a mixture of federal education aid and devote no more than 16 hours weekly to an on-campus job.
And Rutgers is the only one of 61 members of the Association of American Universities -- among the top public and private research-centered institutions -- that sets aside 10 percent of its yearly open slots to low-income students. Its Future Scholars Program also ensures a certain level of ethnic and racial diversity, Associate Chancellor Morrison said.
But those are exceptions. As one gauge of where colleges are veering, the College Board reported that in 2005, $3.3 billion was spent on merit-based college scholarships and financial aid, and $2.5 billion on need-based support -- even as demand for need-based aid spiked.
"Because of the pressures of competition and the desire to move up in the ranking," Lucido said, "a lot of these dollars went to recruit students who [raise] a school's prestige ... Institutions, when they're making these trade-offs, need to consider what their mission says, not just budgetary issues."
And not just prestige, added Lucido, previously USC's vice provost for enrollment policy and management. He has monitored the trends. He is familiar with the practices cited in the Inside Higher Ed survey. His overriding concern is that the spotlighting of what, on the surface, seems like bad news -- colleges have always relied on full-pay students to help underwrite the costs of students who need help -- will dissuade low-income students from applying to college at all.
"In this environment, one of the biggest dangers is a further discouragement of the aspirations of students who think that college really isn't for them and they don't have the resources they need to get to college," Lucido said. "In the face of all of this, for the poorest among the population, many institutions -- particularly the [academically] more selective ones -- have increased their aid. A lot of that aid is merit-based, yes. And that can seem like another obstacle. But my message to students is to 'go after the institutions you want.' "
Audrey Abron of Charlotte, N.C., said that is precisely the approach she took with her daughter, Annese Armstrong, who is currently a senior at Davidson College in North Carolina and whose dad is Nelson Armstrong. "Davidson was the first liberal arts college to do no-loan aid packages," said Abron, who spent 11 years as an assistant admissions director at Texas Christian University.
"Annese's dad and I were ready to take out personal loans or whatever to make college happen for her. But she got great scholarships. We were very pleased about that, and about how Davidson truly wants diversity, a well-balanced student body."
"Free Money" Harder to Find
That's clearly not the case on every campus, said Abron. "It's become a lot more difficult for middle-class America and poor kids, low-income students, to find -- for lack of a better term -- free money to pay for their college education. Loans are an option, but even there, the government is cutting back. College-bound students have to start early and dig so much deeper."
It takes all comers to keep higher education from becoming a kind of exclusive club, said University of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan, another of the leading national voices on the risks of rising college costs. "This trajectory that we're on is a huge threat to our country," Kirwan said, referring to prospects that the well-off will again dominate college campuses.
While the nation's first colleges were founded principally to educate clerics and the upper classes, the post-World War II G.I. Bill set off a change that led to far more democratic admissions policies in colleges and universities. They enrolled more women, more people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds and more races.
"During that period, higher education was something held as a public benefit" abundantly backed by tax dollars, Lucido said. "Right now, that dream of America is being eroded. That's the tragedy of all of this. The commitment to diversity remains strong, but in the face of so many other pressures, it's hard to maintain those commitments."
Nelson Armstrong said, "You have folks in college admissions who talk the talk, but it's far more difficult to walk the walk when money becomes the sticking point."
Baszile, formerly of LSU, added: "I don't think we've really been watchful enough. This issue of whether low-income blacks can stay in college crept up on us. We've got to weigh in on this, before it's too late."
Katti Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer.