Another Misleading NYT Article on College Social Diversity

Vanderbilt Hall, Yale University.
Vanderbilt Hall, Yale University.

In an article for The New York Times published today, Laura Pappano wrote about first-generation college students at elite private colleges. Continuing a pattern at the Times, the article presents a false, overly positive, picture of social diversity at such institutions. Pappano wrote:

Data compiled for the 1vyG conference by Dr. [Thomas G.] Mortenson shows that from 2000 to 2013, Amherst, Harvard, Brown and Princeton doubled or almost doubled Pell recipients. Yale’s growth was modest, while Cornell numbers declined slightly.

Regular readers of this blog will know where I’m going with this, but let’s go there anyway. Pappano should have noted that eligibility for the Pell Grant program has increased by 73% since the 2006-07 academic year. With such a dramatic increase in the scope of the program, elite college administrators would not necessarily have had to do anything to see a significant increase in Pell enrollment.

In fact, in percentage terms, the largest rise in Pell eligibility has been among middle-income families. The number of Pell recipients nationwide with family incomes above $60,000 per year has increased by nearly 900% since 2006-07. Many middle-class students who would not previously have qualified for Pell Grants now do. (The raw data showing the increase in Pell numbers is available here and here.) It is easy to exaggerate social diversity if we fail to note the remarkable changes in the Pell program.

Given the rise in Pell numbers nationwide, and the recent study showing that a majority of public-school students are low income, a percentage of Pell recipients in the ’teens is nothing to boast about. Those facts raise serious questions about Pappano’s assertion that “admissions offices have made efforts to find these [first-generation and low-income] students.”

Pappano also provided numbers on the percentages of first-generation students at several colleges:

The proportion of freshmen at elite campuses who are first generation — 11 percent at Dartmouth, 12 percent at Princeton, 14 percent at Yale, 15 percent at Amherst, 16 percent at Cornell, 17 percent at Brown — nearly matches that of their low-income Pell grant recipients.

As we’ve seen, it’s important to qualify discussion of Pell Grant recipients: not all are low income. Also, what source(s) provided those statistics on first-generation students at Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Amherst, Cornell, and Brown? If those figures were reported by the colleges themselves, Pappano should have said so.

To my surprise, Washington University also came up. Not to my surprise, the Times repeated an earlier error. “Washington University in St. Louis, the least economically diverse top school, last year vowed to more than double enrollment of Pell recipients in five years, to just 13 percent.”

I thank Ms. Pappano for using the word “just” in front of “13 percent,” the only context in which that word could be applied to Washington University’s admissions policies. However, there are two errors in that sentence. First, Wash. U. announced its new proposal earlier this year, not last year.

Second, that university has not even committed to getting its overall Pell enrollment to 13% in five years. Administrators there have set a goal of enrolling a ratio of 13% Pell recipients in the 2020-21 freshman class. The university’s total undergraduate Pell enrollment that year will most likely be lower than that, possibly significantly lower, due to the percentages of Pell recipients in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes. At any rate, the university has made no commitment regarding its overall Pell enrollment for 2020-21.

That same error appeared in David Leonhardt’s January article for the NYT on low-income students at Washington University. I reported the error to the Times and corresponded on that subject with Louis Lucero II, an assistant to the senior editor for standards. The mistake wasn’t fixed in Leonhardt’s article, and here it is again. I published my correspondence with Louis Lucero here.

Maybe Times writers and editors should admit that social diversity in higher education just isn’t their subject.

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