Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the use of affirmative action in the college admission process. In response, local higher education institutions made public pronouncements about their commitment to racial and socioeconomic diversity.
“Our undergraduate Arts, Science and Engineering enrollment has been increasingly diverse, and holistic admissions processes take into account all components of students’ academic potential and individual identity,” University of Rochester spokesperson Sara Miller said at the time.
SUNY Brockport president Heidi Macpherson decried the 6-3 decision by the high court’s conservative majority in a post to students as an “egregious ruling.” She also echoed a statement by the SUNY chancellor and trustees emphasizing the intention of the state’s university system to make diversity, equity and inclusion “a factor in every goal we pursue, every program we create, every policy we promulgate, and every decision we make.”
Today, most Americans support the Supreme Court decision. In a new Gallup Poll released Tuesday, 68 percent of adults considered it “mostly a good thing.” White adults were most likely to have that opinion with 72 percent in agreement, while Black adults were the least likely with 52 percent in agreement. Black adults also were the only group to say the change is making it more difficult for them to attend college. However, except white adults, all groups believe the decision will make colleges slightly or much less diverse.
While DEI often is viewed through a lens focused on categories such as race, gender, ability or sexual orientation, socioeconomic status also is a key measurement.
However, while race and ethnicity is tracked and regularly updated by sources such as the National Center for Education Statistics or colleges themselves, socioeconomic status, which provides insight on economic diversity, is not a readily-tracked statistic. There have been some attempts to measure economic inclusivity at educational institutions, but the picture is murky at best–one made even more complex by rising college tuition.
A commonly used measure
Federal Pell grants are often used as a yardstick to measure economic diversity. The New York Times College-Access Index measures economic diversity at the nation’s most-selective universities using Pell Grants, money the federal government provides for students typically in the low- or moderate-income category. Pell Grant amounts are determined by the Expected Family Contribution, can cover up to $7,395 in 2023-24, and do not need to be repaid.
In the Rochester area, proportions of students awarded Pell Grants have remained relatively steady over time, generally shifting up or down a few percentage points each year.
From the 2008-2009 school year until 2020-2021, Monroe Community College averaged 59 percent of full-time, first-time, undergraduate students receiving a Pell Grant, the highest rate among area colleges and universities. SUNY Brockport had the second-highest rate, averaging nearly 40 percent during that time.
UR had the lowest rate of students awarded Pell Grants, averaging about 19 percent in the 13-year time span. The proportion of non-U.S. resident students, who are not eligible for Pell Grants outside of rare circumstances, more than tripled at the school during that time.
Bucking the trend of static trend lines during this time is SUNY Geneseo, which saw a consistent increase in the percentage of students receiving a Pell Grant. It grew from 14 percent of full-time, first-time students in 2008-2009 to a high of 31 percent in 2018-2019 before settling at 26 percent in 2020-2021.
Using Pell Grants alone to measure efforts by colleges and universities to ensure economic diversity among students could be misleading, though. Kimberley Willis, the director of financial aid at SUNY Brockport, points out that Pell Grants require completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form and federal financial eligibility is not determined by the institution.
“We don’t control the eligibility for federal aid, that lies within the Department of Education. Our role is to help students understand how to navigate and apply for the process,” says Willis.
“We want to assist all students, we’re not here picking and choosing,” she continues. “But we understand we need to spend more time with students who have greater needs, like a first-generation student who may not know the ins and outs of completing a FAFSA.”
In 2023, the National College Attainment Network estimated that students who graduated from high school in 2022 left about $3.6 billion in Pell Grants unclaimed by not completing the FAFSA.
For students who do receive Pell Grants, a common refrain is that the amounts awarded have not kept up with inflation.
“Families are feeling the impact of what we’re (all) dealing with right now, inflation,” says Willis. “Just look at your grocery bill, just look up your gas bill when you fill up your tank. Pell has not kept pace with the increase of the cost of education.”
She adds: “I’ve been advocating for an increase in Pell since I was a doctoral student, and that was over 10 years ago.”
Another approach to measure economic diversity was attempted by Opportunity Index, a Harvard-based research and analyst team, a month after the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.
Using estimates from anonymized admissions data and income tax records at selective colleges, the researchers determined that applicants from high-income families were as much as twice as likely to attend an Ivy-Plus institution compared to applicants from middle-class families with similar SAT or ACT scores. In contrast, applicants from high-income families appeared to have no such advantage at flagship public colleges and universities.
UR was the only Rochester-area institution included in the report. As of 2015, 41 percent of UR students came from families in the top 10 percent income bracket. (Six percent came from the top 1 percent.) Students from families in the bottom 20 to 40 percent income rank made up 12 percent of all students.
For comparison, at the higher end of the income spectrum was Northwestern University, another Tier 2 private school. At that school, 60 percent of students were from families in the top 10 percent of income earners with 18 percent from top 1 percent families.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was on the opposite end of Tier 2 with 38 percent of students from families in the top 10 percent and 4 percent from the top 1 percent.
This unbalanced economic level could partly be attributed to greater rates of applications from higher-income families. However, the study did identify three primary factors behind their advantage: preferences for children of alumni; weight placed on non-academic ratings; and recruitment of athletes, who tend to come from higher-income families.
“Because children from high-income families are more likely to attend private high schools, these differences in non-academic factors across high schools (which may arise from differences in access to resources such as extracurricular activities and guidance counselors) lead to an admissions advantage for high-income applicants,” the report reads.
The study also found that attending a selective school significantly affects post-college success, going as far as tripling students’ chances of obtaining jobs at prestigious firms or earning in the top 1 percent.
Opportunity Index researchers ultimately concluded that these institutions “amplify the persistence of privilege across generations,” but “could diversify the socioeconomic backgrounds of America’s leaders by changing their admissions practices.”
Why does it matter?
Nationwide, rising college tuition has made it harder for families to foot the bill, increasing the importance of financial aid such as loans or grants from federal, state or institutional sources.
From 2002 to 2022 in New York, the average tuition and fees for an on-campus, in-state student increased 34 percent when adjusted for inflation. (Currently, the average tuition and fees statewide is $33,000.)
In the Rochester area, inflation-adjusted tuition has grown an average of 45 percent for private schools and 34 percent for SUNY Brockport and SUNY Geneseo. Current tuition and fees from NCES show the two public schools at around $26,000 for on-campus, in-state students while private school tuition costs ranged from $53,000 at St. John Fisher University to $82,000 at UR.
By far, on-campus room and board was the fastest-growing expense statewide, with the $8,400 average cost representing an increase of 44 percent.
At UR, the student newspaper noted issues with housing supply in 2022 and student concerns around two new religious sites are, in part, due to a lack of housing. UR’s acquisition of College Town last year, which included apartment units designated as affordable housing, and its partnership with Innovation Square seem to be efforts to act with that student housing need in mind.
Following a national trend, public schools this region had the largest price increase in room and board. Over the past two decades, on-campus costs at SUNY Brockport and SUNY Geneseo rose by 50 percent, compared to half that increase at private schools.
As costs have increased, so have rates of financial aid. Across all Title IV degree-granting institutions in the U.S., the proportion of first-time full-time students using any type of aid grew from 70 percent in the 2000-2001 school year to 85 percent in 2020-2021. In New York, that figure grew from 77 percent to 87 percent in the same time frame.
In particular, the proportion of students receiving institutional grants in the area has generally seen the most growth across both private and, in particular, public institutions. Institutional grants are typically needs-based, but are defined as a broad category of funds directly from a college or university, not a government source.
At SUNY Brockport, the proportion of first-time, full-time students receiving institutional grants rose from 16 percent in the 2000-2001 school year to 64 percent in the 2020-2021 school year. SUNY Geneseo’s increase was even more dramatic, rising from 4 percent to 65 percent.
“As a college, we do invest millions of dollars in scholarships to help students who need it to access and afford an education. That’s the bottom line,” says Willis, who credits a commitment to both merit-based and foundational scholarships.
Private schools in the area generally always had high institutional grant rates, with at least 80 percent of students receiving that aid across two decades at Nazareth and St. John Fisher universities. In recent years, UR and RIT’s rates have been mirror opposites, with UR trending downward and RIT trending upward.
While the proportion of Pell Grant recipients has stayed relatively unchanged, other non-Pell federal grants are trending upward for both private and public institutions. Grants from state or local sources have conversely declined.
Assemblymember Sarah Clark, who chairs the subcommittee on Tuition Assistance Program on the Committee on Higher Education, recently spoke about combatting this decline through the “#TurnOnTheTap” campaign.
“As we celebrate 50 years of the Tuition Assistance Program, we must make sure it continues to serve students and families throughout New York,” Clark said in a statement. “As we see the number of students receiving TAP decline, the time is now to adjust this program, ensuring we open the door to higher education for more NYers.”
Clark and fellow committee members urged action to increase both the number of TAP recipients and amount of assistance. TAP, which is used by over 200,000 students in New York, has seen an inflation-adjusted decrease in funding of $403 million from 2010 to 2023.
The rate of non-federal student loans has generally stayed flat or seen a slight decrease for families. UR and RIT have seen the greatest consistent drop in this category, decreasing the rate by 29 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
Left with this situation, Willis again urges families and students to complete the FAFSA to ensure they do not leave any potential aid on the table. She thinks the FAFSA Simplification Act, which will start with the 2024–25 award year, may feel complex now but ultimately will reduce barriers and create a better user experience.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, announced new developments in the debt-forgiveness program through the Savings on a Valuable Education plan last week.
While the plan is much more limited than the president’s failed attempt at student loan forgiveness last summer, it aims to help low-income students in particular. In February, the remaining debt for those enrolled in SAVE who took out less than $12,000 in loans and have been paying them back for at least 10 years will be canceled.
Institutions are working with students and parents to increase economic diversity. SUNY’s Educational Opportunity Program, for instance, targets students suffering from financial hardship by offering state Tuition Assistance Program eligibility, academic and career advice, skill development workshops and financial support for textbooks or supplies. EOP students had a 2016 six-year baccalaureate graduation rate of 69 percent.
At Nazareth, federal funds are being used to assist underprivileged, low-income and first-generation college students. The institution recently received $2.2 million from the U.S. Department of Education to do so.
While Willis says there isn’t an explicit dimension added for socioeconomic status in forming the student body, DEI in all things is important to the college’s mission, which is helping all students.
“Overall, that’s our mission at Brockport. It’s embedded in our fabric to be inclusive and have an inclusive learning environment,” she says. “Financial aid is complicated, but we’re here to serve all students and help them navigate the financial aid process in an effort to help make their education more affordable. We’re not here just to do transactions, we are here to serve our students and to remove any barriers that may impede their academic success.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].