Provost Richard Locke P’18 found himself in a familiar conversation with a middle-income family last month. A student at a public magnet school in Boston and his mom, a social worker, told him that they weren’t considering applying to the University because of the price tag.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with people who are in this bracket,” Locke said. “And I’ll explain, ‘No, you should actually apply to us as opposed to whatever your flagship state school is, because your deal might be better here.’”
According to Locke, this repeated conversation reflects a broader problem in the admission process. Dean of Admission Logan Powell agrees: The University struggles to attract, admit and enroll middle-income applicants compared to students in both high-income and low-income brackets. The absolute number of middle- and moderate-income applicants, accepted students and enrolled students, Locke said, is lower than any other income bracket.
Now, the University is looking to fill the gap.
Defining the missing middle
A family making the United States median income, $67,521 in 2020, would almost certainly qualify for scholarships and grants that cover nearly the full cost of attending the University, Powell said. Even families making up to $100,000 likely wouldn’t pay out of pocket either.
That’s not what Powell defines as middle-income (the Office of Admission uses the term moderate-income). Instead, the University defines moderate-income students as those whose reported income and assets qualify them for some aid, but not enough to cover the full cost of attending the University, with family contributions ranging from roughly $10,000 to $30,000. How family contribution correlates to income varies, Powell said: Some wealthy families report no income, but their assets, such as stock holdings, allow them to pay full price, while other families that report “reasonable” incomes still receive aid.
The University doesn’t share data on income distribution among students. But according to Locke, data from Landscape — a College Board tool created to contextualize applicants’ neighborhoods and high schools — shows a gap in the middle-income group compared to every other income bracket.
Outside evidence also suggests that the country’s wealthiest students are over-represented at the University: A 2017 analysis co-authored by John Friedman, a professor of economics at the University, showed that 19% of students in the University’s class of 2013 came from families making roughly $630,000 or more a year.
And 31% of the class of 2025 comes from private schools — which just seven percent of American students attend. From 2015 to 2019, the University enrolled 35 students from the Dalton School in New York, where tuition is $55,210 and 21% of students receive aid; they enrolled another 35 over the same timeframe from Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, where tuition is $42,600 and 20% of students receive aid.
Existing pipelines for low-income students, such as QuestBridge and the expectation that the University will cover nearly the full price of attendance, have steadily increased the number of students from that income bracket attending the University, Powell said.
But moderate-income students, Powell said, are harder to attract: If they think they can’t afford the cost of attendance, they might not apply at all. With fewer middle-income applicants, fewer middle-income students are admitted, according to Locke. And once admitted, he added, they enroll at a lower rate because they find better offers — usually from schools offering merit aid, or from flagship state universities offering in-state tuition.
“Those students might be able to get a full ride at a Boston University or a Northeastern,” schools that offer merit-based aid, said Natasha Warikoo ’95, a sociology professor at Tufts University who researches racial and ethnic inequality in education.
Making sure that the student body is representative of the country, and by extension its socioeconomic diversity, matters, Locke said. The University wants students to learn from each other, a goal limited by the disproportionate representation of high- and low-income students on campus.
“Students from moderate-income backgrounds are a large portion of America,” Powell added. “Their perspectives are really valuable here.”
According to Locke, other Ivy League provosts face a similar problem. Friedman’s research shows that qualified middle-income students are historically less likely to attend “Ivy-plus” institutions than their low- and high-income peers.
“It’s very important that everybody has a fair shot, and feels like they have a fair shot,” Friedman said.
Finding the missing middle
The problem, Powell said, begins at the outset of their application process when “highly qualified” middle-income students just aren’t applying as often as their peers from other income brackets.
To remedy this, the Office of Admission has created “heat maps” indicating where most of the University’s current middle-income students apply from. That data is overlaid with where middle-income students live across the country. The goal, Powell explained, is to figure out where more prospective applicants may live — both from the areas that provide applicants to the University and the areas that rarely do.
The maps, which go down to the ZIP code and individual school level, show that most of the University’s middle-income students come from the same places as most of its other applicants: the Boston-to-D.C. corridor, hubs in the Midwest and Sun Belt and up and down the Pacific coast. And they also show areas from which the University receives few applicants, but where high numbers of qualified moderate-income students reside, such as Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. The maps, when all taken together, may indicate regions where the University might want to strengthen its efforts, Powell said.
The Office of Admission has also begun preliminary conversations with research groups to help them identify potential moderate-income applicants, Powell said.
All of these efforts to locate students serve to spread a message: The University is an attractive and affordable option for middle-income families who might have otherwise ruled out Brown and the possibility of affording it. To do that, it needs to improve its physical and virtual presence among students, parents and counselors in those targeted regions, Powell said, in addition to asking schools to share information about the University and its aid packages.
“We need to get out there and communicate to these middle-income communities that you can come to Brown,” Locke said. “We never had good information about our financial aid packages.”
When they apply, middle-income applicants are equally competitive as the rest of the pool, Locke said — despite the fact that they’re accepted at a lower rate.
But to make sure that middle-income students who are accepted end up matriculating, Powell and Locke stressed the importance of improving the University’s aid packages.
Both noted the progress of the last decade — the implementation of the Brown Promise, which eliminated loans from the University’s aid packages, as well as a new method of calculating a family’s “asset base” that lessens the extent to which assets such as home equity factor into students’ financial aid calculations.
“The last thing we want is for a student to turn us down because they feel like they can’t afford it, or because they’ve gotten a more generous need-based financial aid offer at another institution,” Powell said.
An institution has “a certain amount of financial aid” to allocate to students, Warikoo said. “Unless you can increase that, and your competitors are using more financial aid to attract those high-achieving students, it’s hard to say what would solve the problem.”
The BrownTogether campaign, which includes an effort to increase the endowment for financial aid, will help fund more competitive aid packages, Locke said, as has the University’s middle/moderate family income financial aid initiative. But he admitted that aid can still improve — and that the financial deficits forced upon the University by the COVID-19 pandemic have only added to the challenge.
“We’re working on it,” he said. “We really are focused on trying to strengthen our financial aid budget. It just takes time.”
The University has also made efforts to consider how to bolster equity in admission: In fall 2019, the University convened an ad-hoc committee following the “Varsity Blues” admission scandal to evaluate how to strengthen Brown’s own admission policies to avoid a similar outcome and increase socioeconomic diversity on College Hill. The first part of the committee’s work focused on ensuring that a similar scandal couldn’t occur at the University — but another focused on making sure the University was accessible to students from all economic backgrounds.
That group’s work concluded in March 2020, Locke said. Its “number one” recommendation to President Christina Paxson P’19 was that the University offer more financial aid.
But the University never publicly released the committee’s full report of recommendations, as was the original plan when the committee was convened. According to Senior Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt, the changing conditions throughout 2020 led to a decision to only use the recommendations to internally “inform strategies and planning for admissions in the months and years ahead.”
“The University’s executive leadership reached the decision that releasing the work of the committee, after all that time, might not align with the current realities and lived experiences of our students,” she wrote in an email to The Herald.
Filling the missing middle in other ways
Increased financial aid funding and communication might not be the only solutions to filling in the missing middle, according to outside experts.
Friedman noted that the University can only control one aspect of this process: the students to whom it offers admission.
“One of the most direct ways to change these issues is to change who we admit,” Friedman said.
The problem, Warikoo added, is systemic. Institutions like the University, she said, were designed for “elites” — and when it decided to expand opportunity, it saw the world in “black-and-white.”
“If you’re poor, (they’re) going to give you a full ride,” she said. “But most people in the country are neither poor nor rich. They’re in the middle, by definition. There was less attention to that middle ground.”
“Brown’s efforts began with a focus on the families with the greatest financial need and have expanded since then,” Powell responded in an email to The Herald, citing the office’s need-blind financial aid policy, its commitment to enrolling more Pell Grant-eligible students and the Brown Promise.
Universities also have a “delicate calculus” between their commitment to financial aid and hitting revenue benchmarks, said Adam Rabinowitz MPA’16, communications manager for the American Talent Initiative, an organization that focuses on expanding access to higher education for lower-income students.
“If you are bringing in more and more low-income students, you need to account for that elsewhere,” he said. That may result in less aid for middle-income students — and more students who pay full price.
To avoid that fate, Warikoo said, universities should engage in “creative thinking.”
“Do we need all the fancy facilities we have?” she said. “Do we need to be spending all this money on labs, or can we move some of this money over to financial aid?”
The University’s report on financial sustainability, released last week, made suggestions in that vein, calling for cuts to marginal expenses that it said would save millions.
One “way out,” Warikoo added, is by expanding enrollment, allowing more students of all financial backgrounds to be accepted.
But Locke said that a sizable expansion of the student body is likely off the table, citing both the intimate “look and feel” of the University as well as balancing graduate and undergraduate populations.
Still, the financial sustainability report — which Locke spearheaded — called for the expansion of the student body by 5% to 10% through “careful enrollment management” and more students taking part in study away and experiential learning programs in order to accommodate a larger student body.
Large-scale federal interventions, such as increasing Pell Grants or wiping out student loan debt, would also make a serious impact in extending access to elite universities, Rabinowitz said.
“I think we’re at a pivotal moment,” Locke said. “Major research universities are being called upon by our society to connect the knowledge we generate to the big issues of our time — and to enhance accessibility of higher education.”
That, he said, looks like large-scale investment in public universities at a broader level and expanding access to higher education to new communities. It also means considering the University’s role locally, such as how it interacts with community colleges and public schools in the Providence area.
Impacts of filling the missing middle
Assuming the University holds its student body at a relatively constant size, Warikoo said that admitting more middle-income students would come at the expense of other applicants.
“Of course it’s a zero-sum game,” she said. “There’s a certain number of spots.”
But Locke pushed back against that characterization. “I think that’s a false framing,” he said of the idea that more middle-income students would mean fewer students from other income backgrounds. “We really accept the best students from all income brackets.”
Rabinowitz pointed out that admitting more students on financial aid would require more financial resources for students of all income brackets: To him, expanding income diversity on campus means “expanding the tent.”
The University, Powell emphasized, looks at applicants one at a time.
“When we conduct our review, we’re not comparing one student to another,” he said. “It’s not ever a situation where two applications are on the table. We are not making decisions solely on the basis of socioeconomic background. That’s a commitment we’ve had for a long time.”
“How do we get the best and brightest to apply and be in our pool?” Locke added. “That’s who we accept.”