Some Liberal Arts Colleges Appear to Be Making Solid Progress in Enrolling Low-Income Students

Last week JBHE reported that 26 of the nation’s 30 highest-ranked liberal arts colleges have shown a decrease in their percentages of low-income students over the 2004 to 2006 period. This calculation was made by examining Department of Education data on the percentage of students receiving federal Pell Grants at each institution. Data for the 2005-06 academic year is the latest available from the Department of Education.

But now there is anecdotal information indicating that some of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges are making progress. In 2006 Williams College in northwestern Massachusetts accepted 28 low-income students who came to the college through the QuestBridge program. This was 7 percent of the college’s incoming class. At Amherst College an even greater 10 percent of the first-year class were QuestBridge students.

QuestBridge recruits high-achieving, low-income students from across the nation and helps them navigate the college admissions process. Students complete a 17-page application and submit a list (in order of preference) of the 20 QuestBridge partner institutions that they would be willing to attend. The partner institutions, in order of the student’s preference, are given the opportunity to accept the student and offer him or her a full tuition scholarship.

The average combined reading and mathematics SAT score of QuestBridge students is 1320. This is significantly below the mean scores for all students at the nation’s most elite institutions. This reveals the difficulty of bringing more low-income students to these high-ranking schools without lowering the overall mean SAT score of the institution. This is important because a lower mean SAT harms the college’s ranking in the annual U.S. News & World Report survey.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that these high-ranking colleges and universities are willing to accept legacy students and athletes whose SAT scores also serve to bring down the school’s mean SAT score.