University News

How diverse are we?

As the University has become less uniform, socioeconomic status still acts as a barrier to Brown

By and
Senior Staff Writers
This article is part of the series Money Matters

Part one of a four-part series

In the 2004 Plan for Academic Enrichment, the University declared its goal to increase socioeconomic diversity and has since continued to promote an image of accessibility for students of all income levels.

“It’s important to know that diversity in its myriad forms is a guiding value in the admission process, socioeconomic diversity included,” wrote Dean of Admission Jim Miller ’73 in an email to The Herald. “It’s also important to know that we are seeking diversity not just for the sake of diversity, but because talent and excellence come from across the nation and the world and from all different strata of society.” 

With a need-blind admission process implemented in 2003 and a financial aid office that states it is committed to meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need, Brown educates students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Still, under 50 percent of students receive financial aid, and a majority of students pay full tuition – $53,136 in the current academic year – which itself is more than the median U.S. household income. 

Over the past 250 years, colleges, including elite four-year institutions like Brown, have grown more diverse. For the majority of its history, the University primarily enrolled white students from New England, said University Historian Jane Lancaster MA’93 PhD’98. Now, about 20 percent of students come from New England, and 54 percent of undergraduates in the 2010-11 academic year indicated a racial status other than white. 

But despite these increases in other areas of diversity, universities like Brown are still less accessible to students from lower-class backgrounds, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, who authored studies highlighting this discrepancy in 2004 and 2010.  

“There’s still very little socioeconomic diversity in selective colleges. In the top 200 colleges, which includes Brown, the share of people from the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution was about 3 or 4 percent in 1992 and 3 or 4 percent now,” he said. 

“The least academically talented students in the upper income quartile go to college at the same rates as the most academically talented students in the lowest income quartile, and students from the lowest income quartile have been underrepresented at Brown, and other places like Brown, for much of our history,” Miller wrote. 

As the value of a college education has increased, higher education has become disproportionately more expensive. 

The current state of income diversity at Brown cannot be determined solely by examining the number of students on financial aid – about 47 percent in the class of 2015 – or the average grant of about $37,800. A broad range of other factors nationwide, such as discrepancies in secondary education and the national rise in college education costs, influence who applies to Brown, whom the University accepts and who ultimately chooses to attend. 

 

The early years

The University was founded in 1764 under a charter proclaiming the school’s aim to “educate young men to take their place in society,” Lancaster said.

Though there were always wealthy students at the college, the University in the 18th and 19th centuries was composed primarily of white students from New England cities and farms who represented a wide range of family incomes.

Brown and other schools like it “were never just for rich white males,” said Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer in education who teaches EDUC 1730: “American Higher Education in Historical Context.”

“It was not uncommon for poor boys from the hinterlands to be funded by people who took a liking to them,” Spoehr said.

Though a college education could help students become physicians and lawyers, economic success did not depend as heavily on college as it does today. In 1900, less than 4 percent of the eligible population went to college, Spoehr said. A college degree was not expected for most careers, and the path to financial success did not depend as heavily on an elite education as many believe it does now. Today, close to 70 percent of the eligible population enrolls in college, though only about half of the students who enter college graduate, Spoehr added. 

Attending college grew in importance around 1930 when the Great Depression rendered jobs difficult to find, in turn making a college degree more desirable. With tuition set at $400, Brown was “quite a good deal,” Lancaster said. “Many people could scrape by.”

The University also worked throughout the 1930s to expand its applicant pool’s geographic diversity, in part because of competition from the University of Rhode Island and Providence College, Lancaster said.

By increasing its applicant base, the University hoped to improve the caliber of its student body. In 1934, President Clarence Barbour 1888 instructed alums to find applicants with scholastic and leadership potential who came from all parts of the country and had “different economic and social backgrounds,” according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana. They were also instructed to find “a number of applicants able to meet their college expenses without financial aid from the University.”

College became even more important after World War II, as the economy shifted away from producing goods toward human services that required “symbol manipulators,” Spoehr said. 

The G.I. Bill, which provided funding for veterans to attend college, caused an “explosion of enrollment on college campuses,” he added. 

Additionally, growing concern in the Cold War about the superiority of Russian scientists caused a “huge expansion in education,” Lancaster said. “The federal government started investing very heavily in higher education,” she added.

Wealthy students continued to attend college, but the growing size of higher education institutions, as well as increases in federal grant and loan programs, allowed students from a broader range of income levels to attend, Lancaster said. 

The increase in enrollment in the late ’50s and ’60s led to greater emphasis on standardized tests, specifically the SAT. That shift affected the prestige of schools like Brown, Spoehr said, which began
to focus more on getting the best students.

The adoption of the SAT initially helped admission offices become ­- or at least seem – more objective. “It’s not who your parents are. It’s how you do on the SAT,” Spoehr said.

 

Racial diversity

But despite this increase in enrollment, especially of middle-class students, the majority of students were white until the late 1960s.

Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70 P’02 said there were about four black seniors at the University in 1967. 

This homogeneity changed dramatically in 1968, a high point for civil rights activism, he said.

That year, the 25 to 30 black students at the University staged a walkout. When the class of 1973 entered the University the following year, “all of a sudden, for the first time, you see a significant number of African American faces,” he said, estimating that the class of 1973 had around 60 to 70 black students.

Racial diversity and class diversity are often linked, but Miller said while he thinks the influx of black students changed Brown’s socioeconomic makeup, he is not sure of its exact effects.

Affirmative action and programs that aim to increase racial diversity often do not increase economic diversity, because they target people from the middle class, said Sherry Linkon, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University. “You might get African-American students or Chicano students who are actually coming from a pretty advantaged place who could get in anywhere, anyway,” she said.

Miller said both racial diversity and socioeconomic diversity, whether related or not, have grown since he was an undergraduate.

 

A turning point

The University shifted closer toward its current state of financial aid in the ’80s, as both the value of a college degree and tuition continued to increase. College tuition rose astronomically throughout the decade, surpassing the rate of inflation. And after the 1981 nationwide recession, more jobs began to require a college degree, Carnevale said. 

The economy shifted toward one that valued “higher levels of cognitive skills,” said John Tyler, a professor of education who teaches the course EDUC 1130: “Economics of Education.”

Colleges were able to increase their tuition rates as people became more willing to invest more in their education. “One of the main things that supports increasing tuition is that people are willing to pay it. And they’re willing to pay it because the market is willing to pay them,” he said. 

Ken Miller said his tuition in the late 1960s would have been about half of his father’s $6,800 annual salary when he attended Brown. Now, such a ratio would suggest “coming from a family where the salary of the primary breadwinner is like $110,000.” 

But Miller said his family was in a much lower socioeconomic group than someone whose family income was around $110,000 today. “Certainly even the elite schools, even the Ivy League schools, were more affordable then,” he said. 

As the value of a college degree rises, the number of lower-income students attending four-year institutions is decreasing. These simultaneous trends have made higher education “part of the inequality mechanism in America,” Carnevale said. Lower-income students tend to attend two-year and community colleges, going on to earn less than their peers at four-year institutions. As a result, their children will likely grow up in lower income brackets, consequently having a smaller chance of attending a four-year college and achieving subsequent upward economic mobility. 

Over the past 20 years, the University has worked to combat the cycle, instituting measures to recruit and enroll a more socioeconomically diverse student body. Still, while measures like the institution of a need-blind admission process in 2003 have changed perceptions of the University’s accessibility, their actual effects on enrollment have not been as dramatic.

“Things are very slow and subtle the way they move in places like this,” said Michael Goldberger, current director of athletics and dean of admission from 1995 to 2005.

 

The ‘luxury’ of need-blind

Simmons announced a proposal in 2001 to make admission need-blind for domestic first-years. Two years later, the class of 2007 was the first to be admitted under the need-blind policy. 

Prior to implementing need-blind admission for first-year domestic applicants, the University attempted to be need-blind for around 90 percent of applicants, Goldberger said. The remaining 10 percent of applicants were categorized “under advisement” and consisted of students deemed weaker candidates, he said.

“At that time, we would know how much money we spent, we would know what the need was for each of the group UAD or ‘under advisement’ category, and then we became very need-aware,” Goldberger said. 

Before the 2003 need-blind transition, around 36 percent of students received financial aid, according to a 2008-09 status report by the Office of Institutional Diversity. In recent years, that number has fluctuated between 38 and 44 percent, said Jim Tilton, director of financial aid. 

The number of undergraduates applying for financial aid has not changed significantly in the past 10 years, Tilton said. Around 50 percent of students apply for financial aid each year, he said, and though the percentage fluctuates from year to year, application increases likely reflect rising tuition prices as well as possible shifts in the demographics of the applicant pool.

Over the past 20 years, Goldberger said the diversity within both the applicant pool and the group of students admitted to the University has grown, though not drastically. 

Going need-blind for domestic first-years “wasn’t as big a deal as you might have thought in terms of the impact that it would have on the applicant pool,” Goldberger said. 

Despite only moderate increases in the number of students on fina
ncial aid, Goldberger said the switch to a need-blind process for first-year domestic applicants was the right decision. “To be need-blind is such a luxury,” he said. 

He also noted that Simmons and the Corporation made the decision to go need-blind before the University received a $100 million gift in 2004 from Sidney Frank ’42 that provided funds for the additional costs. “(Simmons’) feeling was it’s the right thing to do and we should do it and still meet 100 percent of need,” Goldberger said. 

Going need-blind “sends a compelling message to prospective applicants and their parents that merit alone determines admission, that there are no back doors or side doors into Brown because you can pay (and) someone else cannot,” Jim Miller wrote. 

During the 2008-09 academic year, the University also eliminated the expected family contributions of students whose parents earned less than $60,000 combined, Tilton said. While this change did not significantly affect the number of students applying for and receiving financial aid, it did increase the average financial aid package, Tilton said. 

The recession, which hit the same year, did not dramatically affect the number of enrolled students applying for financial aid, Tilton said. While around 50 percent of enrolled undergraduates still applied as in previous years, the number of students seeking financial aid counseling and the number of applicants asking for financial aid increased, he said. The number of applicants seeking financial aid has increased 25 percent since 2007-08, Tilton wrote in an email to The Herald.  

The recession also caused many school districts to reduce their number of college counselors, Goldberger said, making it harder to educate students in lower-income areas about the University’s financial aid and admissions policies. Without this information, some students are deterred from applying to the University because they think they will not be able to afford Brown, Spoehr said.

“We know that this is a problem now – that if you’re from a low-income family that’s first-generation, you’re often deterred by the sticker price,” Tyler said, even though most students in that income bracket would receive significant financial aid that could make college affordable.

“You’re repeating the ‘Gee, it wouldn’t even occur to me to apply to that school’ phenomena that you would have had 100 years ago,” Spoehr said. “Except 100 years ago, you didn’t need to go to college.” 

 

Advantages of wealth

When lower-income students do apply to the University, they are often disadvantaged compared to their wealthier peers. 

Due to better access to material resources and cultural capital, more affluent children tend to go to higher-quality secondary schools, better preparing them for college, Goldberger said.

“I think the biggest issue is really the country,” he said, adding that lower-income communities cannot afford high property taxes, making it difficult to improve public education in these areas.

“Through much of American history, we have tried to avoid talking about class and to try to pretend that working-class people don’t actually have any disadvantages, that they could be just like everybody else if only they would try hard enough,” Linkon said. “And we’re beginning to understand that there are some structural obstacles – things like the quality of public schools – that make it significantly harder.”

Students without the appropriate high school background are often turned down “even though they’re perfectly bright and they’d do just fine” if they had the courses they needed, Goldberger said. “It is very hard to make that leap to say that this is someone that I am confident can be successful at Brown.”

It was much easier 20 years ago to find students who had low test scores and attended poor public high schools but still stood out as someone “who’s got it,” he said. Then, he said, his admission team had to read about half the number of applications that the current office deals with, despite the staff being roughly the same size. “When you have got 30,000 applications to go through in a very short amount of time, it’s hard to find those pearls,” he said.

Despite increases in the number of students on Pell Grants and need-blind admission, Goldberger said he does not think the socioeconomic diversity of the University has increased significantly in recent years. One issue may be that need-blind prevents admissions officers from considering advantages afforded to wealthier applicants.

When colleges began emphasizing SAT scores, they did so to make the admissions process more objective. But today, the test is often criticized for favoring wealthier students, who can afford preparatory classes and tutors.

“I don’t think (need-blind admission does) any good. Because in the end, it’s the distribution of test scores,” Carnevale said. “You can go need-blind, but if everyone’s got a 1200 SAT, you’re not going to get any low-income kids.”

By focusing more exclusively on lower-income applicants, the University may have also become less attractive to middle-income students, Goldberger said. In its financial aid options for students with a family income between $80,000 and $175,000 per year, the University still lags behind the other Ivies, which may drive some  students to peer institutions, he said.

“Families that consider themselves middle-income are finding that the amount of the parent contribution from institutions like Brown that award need-based aid is sometimes different than what they themselves have determined that they can contribute,” Tilton wrote. But this is also a problem at many of the University’s peer institutions, he wrote. 

The University “must continue to make a compelling case to middle-income families of the value proposition of a Brown education,” especially as those families experience the financial challenges of the current economy, Jim Miller wrote.

“Students come from much wealthier families now than they used to,” said George Borts, a professor of economics who has taught at Brown since 1950.

In a recent Herald poll, a plurality of students listed financial aid as the most important issue for the next University president to emphasize.
The issue of the student body’s socioeconomic diversity will become increasingly relevant in the coming years as the University evaluates its priorities under President-elect Christina Paxson

The rest of this series reviews different facets of socioeconomic diversity at the University. The series will explore the University’s financial aid offerings compared to those at its peer institutions, how socioeconomic diversity impacts student interactions on campus and how students’ socioeconomic backgrounds affect their career choices after college. In exploring these different elements of diversity, The Herald hopes to shed light on how socioeconomic status may influence a student’s journey from application to the University to life after Brown.

 

Correction appended: An earlier version of this article stated that two-thirds of enrolled students applied for financial aid. In fact, two-thirds of admitted students applied and only about 50 percent of enrolled students applied for aid. The Herald regrets the error.