Rightfully, there is ongoing national dialogue about how best to make higher education accessible and affordable for aspiring and qualified students, regardless of socioeconomic or demographic background. This issue, along with the challenge of creating a diverse and welcoming environment, is a very high priority for me, and the entire administration at Washington University in St. Louis. There are no easy answers to the challenges we face. But we must make progress, and, despite more work to do, I’m very proud that we are making progress.
Recently, an article in The New York Times brought attention to just one aspect of the complex question of increasing accessibility, specifically the extent to which leading institutions enroll Pell Grant-eligible students. As you likely know, the Federal Pell Grant Program provides need-based grants of up to $5,645 to undergraduate and certain post-baccalaureate students. The grants may be used at any one of several thousand participating postsecondary institutions and, generally, for this program, families with an annual income of up to $50,000 are eligible. Most Pell Grant funding goes to students with a total family income of less than $20,000. The average annual family income of a Washington University Pell Grant family is just more than $30,000, but this may vary at other institutions.
The general focus of the Times article is that, strictly based on Pell Grant-eligible student enrollment, certain leading colleges and universities — including Washington University — fall behind in the effort to make secondary education accessible and affordable. While enrolling Pell Grant-eligible students is one consideration, we take a much broader view on accessibility and affordability. I wanted to share with you some thoughts on this very serious topic.
First, let me share a bit about our approach to admissions and financial assistance here at Washington University.
Since my arrival as chancellor, we have followed a “need-conscious” policy, with the specific goals of achieving quality, diversity and affordability. Quality meaning attracting, retaining and graduating top-tier students and putting them on a strong track for successful lives and careers. Diversity meaning bringing into our student body many different perspectives and backgrounds and creating an environment where all feel welcome. Affordability meaning doing everything we can to make it possible for qualified students to attend Washington University, regardless of ability to pay.
In many ways, Washington University has done remarkably well. We have an undergraduate student body that has academic indicators competitive with the very best private research universities and colleges in the country. Our 94 percent graduation rate puts us alongside the very best, with underrepresented minority and low-income students graduating at essentially the same rate as all others. Over the past 10 years, we have increased our financial assistance commitment to needy students by 87 percent (with the cost of tuition during this same time period increasing by 56 percent). Further, we have achieved our successes while expanding the size of the undergraduate student body, from about 5,000 in the fall of 1995 to about 6,500 this fall. This means we are serving more students who are diverse, including those from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds.
Looking more specifically at financial assistance, in addition to providing more resources overall, there are other significant signs of progress, again with the opportunity always to do more:
• Today, about half of our students receive some financial assistance.
• In the past decade, the average aid award for students with need has increased from about $16,000 to about $30,000.
• Under our “no-loan” program, students from low-income families receive financial assistance packages without having to incur any debt. Initially, in 2008, the program was available for families with annual incomes of $60,000 or less. Today, that has increased to families of freshmen with incomes of $75,000 or less. The number of students in this category has increased from about 70 to more than 120.
• We are very fortunate at Washington University that our Pell Grant enrollees receive the assistance they need to cover the cost of their education. More significantly, nearly all complete their degrees and go on to graduate. The same is not the case at many other institutions.
• As part of our Leading Together: The Campaign for Washington University, we have established the ambitious goal of raising $330 million for scholarships and fellowships to support students with financial need. Already, we have secured commitments of greater than $200 million toward that objective and we aspire to exceed our goal.
At one level, we are grateful that bright, talented students who can afford to attend any of the top universities in the country are choosing us. Our fiscal situation is such that we depend on the revenue from this group of students. However, the education we provide to all students is stronger with the presence of a diverse student body, including socioeconomically diverse students. Because of this, we need to redouble our effort and work harder to be more attractive to these students and to develop the additional resources needed to support them. Thus, being able to admit and enroll even more students with financial need and — then — seeing them graduate and go on to successful careers remains a key objective for us.
The fact is that we have made enormous progress, without the resources of some of our peers, and we have the resolve to sustain our trajectory of improvement. We are continuing to aggressively and creatively recruit the very highest quality and most diverse student body possible. We are not resting on our laurels.
Washington University is making major contributions to society every day, and balancing the factors that will enhance our quality and impact is an ongoing challenge. We have the potential to do much more, and the leadership team of the university will continue its efforts to enhance Washington University’s leadership to benefit America and the world.