A recent New York Times article outlined a new kind of diversity gap at some of the nation’s leading public institutions of higher education: diversity based on socioeconomic status.
In light of an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action policies used in higher education admissions, some universities are looking for alternative means to continually enroll a culturally and socioeconomically diverse student body without incorporating race-conscious policies.
One common metric of interpreting the socioeconomic diversity of students at an institution is the percentage of Pell grant-eligible students admitted to and/or enrolled at a given university.
If affirmative action is struck down, it is expected that income-based diversity policies will be adopted nationally in universities.
At the University of Minnesota, 26 percent of students enrolled were eligible for Pell grants in the last school year, and 31 percent of enrolled were first-generation college students.
Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, said these statistics have shown an upward trend in recent years, but on an annual basis remain relatively stable.
Compared to the University of California-Berkeley, where 34 percent of undergraduates are Pell grant-eligible, and the University of Michigan — where the 2003 affirmative action case began — at 16 percent, the University falls somewhere between the most diverse schools and the middle of the pack.
Part of the reason the University has been able to consistently attain a decent level of socioeconomic diversity from year to year is the various outreach programs connecting middle and high school students, as well as their counselors, with University admissions and financial aid officers.
The University offers the President’s Emerging Scholars program and the Promise Scholarship, which help encourage students who may be financially disadvantaged. These sources of aid are more important the more “blind” a university is in its admissions.
The University’s admissions process is based on need-blind principles, and as such it does not seek to actively recruit low-income or socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Instead it measures diversity and socioeconomic status only after those students are admitted.
How can the University build on its existing income diversity?
Higher education professors Bradley Curs and Ozan Jaquette linked increased out-of-state enrollment to lower socioeconomic diversity in the student body.
The answer, according to their research, is state funding.
Out-of-state students bring in more money for universities — one only needs to look at the difference in tuition rates for in-state students to see why.
At UC Berkeley, one of the most income-diverse schools, their out-of-state student population rapidly increased the past few years, and their racial diversity dropped as a result.
President Eric Kaler’s budget for the 2014-2015 school year increases tuition for out-of-state students by $1,000. This may result in a welcome but unintentional increase in the socioeconomic diversity of Minnesota residents attending the University.
If states are not able to afford more education spending, Curs and Jacquette say that “caps on non-resident enrollments may be a means of retaining socioeconomic and racial diversity.”
In the future, a cap on non-resident enrollment may be necessary to strike a balance between world-class research and a diverse student body.
McMaster said that Kaler’s goals of advancement of faculty research programs would not directly correlate with decreased undergraduate recruitment.
“We can become an even more elite University in terms of the research, the scholarship, the number of national awards that we win,” McMaster said, “and that won’t play itself out in any decrease in the diversity of the undergraduate class.”