​Committee investigates ways to support growing Pell population​​​

Provost appoints Cornerstone's Fields to lead committee


A committee of campus leaders is investigating the best ways to serve an anticipated increase in Pell Grant-eligible students at Washington University in St. Louis in the fall and in future years. Harvey R. Fields Jr., PhD, assistant director for academic programs at Cornerstone, the Center for Advanced Learning, is leading the group.

“We want to go beyond admitting and graduating more Pell-eligible students,” Fields said. “We want our students to have a full and robust and enriching experience while they are here at the university.”

Provost H. Holden Thorp, PhD, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and the Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor, has charged the group with auditing the university’s current programs and services for low-income students, studying best practices at peer universities and recommending improvements by June 2015.

Thorp expects to implement some of the committee’s recommendations as early as the upcoming fall semester.

“Is there more we can do to prepare for more low-income students — we want to take a good look at that question,” Thorp said. “I believe that these students are going to succeed here because they are highly qualified. Still, we want to get in front of issues that may arise from having larger numbers of low-income students.”

This year, Washington University committed to recruit, retain and graduate more Pell-eligible students. About 8 percent of the current freshman class is Pell-eligible, a percentage Thorp would like to increase to 13 percent in the coming years.

University leaders said that bringing together the right mix of bright and talented students from a wide range of backgrounds will expand perspectives and foster diversity of thought — the hallmarks of a great university education.

Leading Together: The Campaign for Washington University currently is raising $400 million to better support undergraduate and graduate students with financial need through scholarships. But what about toiletries, school supplies and the many other expenses students incur at college? Fields thinks about the student, for example, who could not afford the mandatory safety gear for a chemistry lab.

“The difference between taking the lab or not for this student was a $25 lab coat,” Fields said. “We were able to take care of it, but the question becomes: How many students don’t find their way to Cornerstone or to someone who can help? Where are the places that subtle deficits in someone’s financial situation become significant barriers to fully experiencing Washington University?”

Fields knows firsthand the challenges low-income students face. He was a first-generation, low-income student when he entered Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Today, Fields oversees Washington University’s TRIO program, the federal initiative that helps support a small percentage of the university’s low-income students. The program is a success; Washington University’s TRIO students graduate at the same high rate as the general population. TRIO students are mentored by Cornerstone advisers and TRIO student leaders. They also receive money for books, supplies and travel home.

Fields believes some of TRIO’s best practices can serve the broad Pell-eligible population. He also wants to explore the benefit of adding more Focus programs — special, year-long seminars — for first-year students.

“I don’t want to predetermine what recommendations will come out of the work, but my time at the university and my own experience tell me that students will succeed where there is financial support, professors who guide and challenge their students and cohort groups who can help students acclimate,” Fields said.

Thorp said Fields is the ideal candidate to lead the committee.

“We could not have come up with a better person because Harvey has a background in chemistry, and that is one of the more challenging classes, and because he has been involved in Cornerstone for years,” Thorp said. “Having such a champion of college access look at these questions is a smart project.”

Members of the committee are:

  • Adrienne Davis, JD, vice provost and the William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law;
  • Sharon Stahl, PhD, vice chancellor for students;
  • Robyn S. Hadley, associate vice chancellor for students and director of the Ervin Scholars Program;
  • LaTanya Buck, director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion;
  • John A. Berg, vice chancellor for admissions;
  • Jennifer R. Smith, PhD, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences; and
  • Rob Wild, associate vice chancellor for students.

Editor’s note: This story was edited on April 13, 2015, to clarify that approximately 8 percent of the 2014-15 freshman class is Pell-eligible. The original story indicated that the figure applied to the entire student body.