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 2.

In little more than a dozen years, Princeton University tripled the share of freshmen who qualify for federal Pell Grants to 22 percent this fall. The grants, targeting students from low-to-moderate-income families with significant financial need, are a key indicator of economic diversity. The Ivy League school’s transformation reflects mounting pressure on top colleges, public and private, to provide more opportunity to communities where poverty is common and college degrees scarce.

If Rob Anderson were a reporter, as opposed to a stenographer, he would ask a simple question: What is the family income of the 1,000th poorest student at Princeton and how has that changed over time? (Of course, we really want to see how the whole distribution changes, but a simple number like this would tell basic story.) In the Williams context:

In 1998, the 426th poorest family at Williams had a family income of $63,791. What is the family income of the 426th poorest family at Williams today? How has that number changed over the last two decades?

Pell Grants are only a rough proxy for (part of) what we really care about: economic diversity. But it is a proxy that Williams (and Princeton) don’t have to use because they know the family income of all the students (more than 50% of the campus) who requests financial aid. The fact that they don’t tell us these much more meaningful numbers makes me deeply suspicious.

The grants are an imperfect measure of diversity. Researchers say the Pell-eligible share of freshmen at some top schools rose at least a few percentage points in recent years because Congress expanded the maximum grant and because incomes fell during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009.

In other words, a college might have changed nothing about its recruiting in that time and still looked a bit better. But it is clear the Pell share has become an influential metric in the Ivy League and beyond.

Exactly right. Moreover, Anderson is (purposely?) underplaying the strength of this complaint. (And his failure to mention Raj Chetty by name is an indication of amateurism, perhaps caused by Chetty’s close connection to the New York Times. Key details (pdf):

At Ivy-Plus colleges, the fraction of students receiving Pell grants increased from 12.1% to 16.8% between 2000-2011, an increase that has been interpreted as evidence of growth in low-income access at these colleges. In Online Appendix F, we show that the apparent discrepancy between trends in Pell shares and our percentile-based statistics, which show little or no change in low-income access, is driven by two factors. First, Congress raised the income eligibility threshold for Pell Grants significantly between 2000 and 2011, mechanically increasing the share of families that qualified for Pell grants. Second, as noted above, incomes fell sharply during the 2000s at the bottom of the distribution, further increasing the number of families whose incomes placed them below the Pell eligibility threshold. We estimate that the changes in eligibility rules mechanically increased Pell shares at Ivy-Plus colleges by approximately 2.9 pp from 2000-2011, while the decline in real incomes increased Pell shares by approximately 2.5 pp (Online Appendix Figure IX). Together, these changes fully account for the observed increase in Pell shares. Accounting for these factors, the Pell data imply that there was no significant change in the parental income distribution of students at Ivy-Plus colleges between 2000-2011.

There is no evidence that socio-economic diversity increased at places like Princeton between 2000 and 2011, despite the increase in the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants. A competent reporter would have mentioned this fact and/or sought a quote from Chetty or one of his co-authors. The Princeton PR Department, of course, prefers the story as currently published.

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