Washington University in St. Louis — better known as WashU — is known internationally as a top university, but has another reputation it is looking to shed.
As David Leonhardt writes in The New York Times, WashU is “the nation’s least economically diverse top college,” meaning it has a particularly low number of students on financial aid. According to Leonhardt, only 6% of WashU undergraduates receive federal Pell grants, targeted at students whose families are usually in the bottom 40% of the income distribution.
The university is now making a sizable effort to change these numbers, announcing a plan this week to reach 13% of Pell-eligible students by 2020, detailed in student newspaper The Student Life. However, WashU isn’t doing as well as its peer institutions. As The Student Life reports, WashU’s competitors have a median of about 15% of Pell-eligible students.
This is not a new problem for WashU, which is ranked as the 14th-best university in America. In 2013, The Times reported that WashU “has an endowment similar in size, per student, to those of Emory and Vassar — between $US300,000 and $US400,000 as of mid-2012, wealthier than all but a few dozen colleges in the country,” but enrolls a much less economically diverse class.
“A student at Vassar, for example, is three times as likely to receive a need-based Pell Grant as one at Washington University in St. Louis,” The Times noted.
There are a number of reasons why this has historically been the case.
The Times reported in 2013 that John Berg, the vice chancellor for admissions at WashU, told the newspaper that “one reason its numbers are so low is that the disadvantaged students it admits usually have offers from other top colleges with better name recognition.”
Another issue has been WashU’s reliance on need-aware admissions, which administrators have long said is an economic necessity for the university. While most of the university’s peers and competitors have need-blind policies — which state that a student’s potential financial aid needs do not play a role in any admissions decisions — WashU is one of the few top colleges that accepts or rejects students based in part on their economic situation.
Unlike other colleges, WashU is up-front about its need-aware policies. According to a 2013 Student Life editorial:
Wash. U. officials, to their credit, have been transparent with their procedure from the beginning. A prospective student’s ability to pay for Wash. U. is only taken into account when admissions officers are trying to reach the budget line for the incoming class. The University argues that it wants to ensure all students that are accepted are able to afford coming here, as opposed to dissuading applications from less-well-off individuals, although both potential methodologies result in fewer low-income students attending Wash. U.
There may be a simple reason why the university remains need-aware. It has tended to invest in resources that are tied to college rankings, a connection WashU has refuted. In the 2013 Times article, Berg “insisted” that at WashU “rankings are never discussed in the admissions office,” according to the newspaper.
However, as Leonhardt reports, rather than previously expanding its financial aid offerings, “Administrators say they have instead been devoting resources to turning Wash. U. into a top university, by hiring faculty, building new facilities and taking other steps. And the university’s rise has certainly been impressive, from a largely regional university a few decades ago to one that draws students from all over.”
This echos remarks in 2012 from the university’s Chancellor, Mark Wrighton, who at an open forum discussion on tuition “made clear that, while the University would like to give more need-based aid, the administration has prioritised investments in faculty, facilities and programs over increasing socioeconomic diversity,” The Student Life reported.
We have reached out to WashU for comment on their new admissions policy and the New York Times report, and will update with any statement we receive.
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