Whitney Wilson ’90 points out this Washington Post article (and chart) about the rise in the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at elite schools like Williams. For background information on this topic, read this, this and our ten (!) part series from 2014. Let’s spend a week on this topic. Today is Day 1.

The elite protect each other, which is the best way to understand how Washington Post reporter Nick Anderson ends up providing such a tongue-bath to Princeton. Start with the title:

How an Ivy got less preppy: Princeton draws surge of students from modest means

The term “preppy” comes, obviously, from the “prep” schools that have been feeding students to Princeton (and Williams) for generations. With that title, you would expect some evidence, or even a discussion, about whether (or not!) there are, in truth, fewer prep schools students at elite colleges. Surprise! There is no discussion. As best we know, there are as many students from prep schools like Andover, Exeter and Groton today as there were 50 years ago.

Consider Amherst: 34% (pdf) are from “private” schools in the class of 2020, compared to 38% (pdf) in the class of 2003. Now, you might argue that a 4% decrease is a meaningful change. Maybe. But, a decade ago, it was 35% (pdf) for the class of 2010, so whatever “progress” has been made stopped cold more than a decade ago. I bet that the (lack of) trends at Princeton (and Williams) have been similar. There is no evidence of elite colleges have become less “preppy” over the last decade.

There is, however, an increased reliance on Pell Grants to measure economic diversity.

Pell Grants, worth up to $5,920 apiece this year, are the foundation of need-based financial aid. They are awarded through a formula that assesses family size, assets, income and other factors. Most go to students whose families make less than $50,000 a year, a range that spans deep poverty to moderate income.

We have discussed before that Pell Grants are an imperfect proxy. Recall that international students are not eligible. A school with 50% of its students from very poor Mexican or Brazilian or Ukranian families would not do well because those student aren’t counted in this methodology. More details to come tomorrow. There can be little doubt, however, that going forward, Pell Grants will be important.

As soon as a metric becomes important, it starts to be gamed:

They even began checking family finances before deciding whom to admit. The point was not to exclude those in need but, possibly, to boost their chances.

It used to be that Princeton accepted student X (with family income of $60,000) over student Y (with family income of $50,000, and therefore Pell-eligible) if X had better test scores, grades, recommendation letters and so on. With this new policy, that changes. If Princeton thinks that you will be awarded a Pell, you now have a (large?) advantage over applicants with, for all practical purposes, the same socio-economic standing. What should smart applicants do?

U-Penn.’s dean of admissions, Eric Furda, said the university, with more than 10,000 undergraduates, also produces every year a high number of graduates who were Pell grant recipients. But he acknowledged that the school wants to have a higher freshman Pell share than its rate of 13 percent in 2016 and 14 percent in 2015, and is exploring how to do that.

“If this is going to be the measure,” Furda said, “then just what we’ve been doing for 10 years is not going to necessarily be enough.”

Indeed. Advice to applicants: Do whatever you can to convince Furda (and Princeton and Williams and . . .) that you will be eligible for a Pell Grant.

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