Whispered Policies

October 25, 2009 | Blog

Friday’s Chronicle reports on a new study that points out how difficult it can be to identify which colleges and universities have no-loans policies designed to enhance affordability. Author Laura Perna and her colleagues find that the majority of elite institutions with these policies fail to advertise them in ways that are accessible to low-income students and families– effectively maintaining their status as “bastions of privilege.” The researchers then go on to make several helpful suggestions about how colleges could change their tactics to increase awareness and uptake of their progressive efforts.

But they could’ve gone one step further and discussed the incentives colleges have to maintain the status quo– that is, to continue making their current and former students and staff feel good with liberal actions, garnering attention in elite venues such as the New York Times, without fundamentally changing their overall enrollment demographics or costing too much money. Call me cynical, but as a sociologist it strikes me that this is exactly how power is effectively maintained in the face of pressure for socially responsible actions from powerful institutions.

According to another recent study by economists Waddell and Singell, of the just-over 384,000 Pell Grant recipients attending 4-year institutions in 2000, only 0.3% were enrolled at Ivy League institutions (which disproportionately possess these no-loan policies). Across elite private institutions, Pell recipients rarely amount to more than 1% of the entering class. In 2000, there were only 108 Pell recipients in the freshman class at Harvard, and just 50 at Princeton. These are tiny, tiny numbers. So if no-loans policies actually resulted in massive increases in applications from low-income students, we could see many consequences for those schools. For one, their institutional aid budgets would have to grow– if low-income students managed to get past the admissions hurdle. Second, depending on how exactly admissions dealt with the increased applicant pool (e.g. whether a ‘thumb’ was placed on the scale so as to ensure a reasonable proportion were admitted– an action recommended by Bill Bowen), graduation rates might be affected. Third, you’d see a larger, more visible contingent of people on campuses from different family backgrounds, affecting social dynamics. Many of these outcomes could be interpreted as both positive and negative, depending on your perspective.

Simply put, right now colleges with small numbers of low-income undergraduates can afford to adopt no-loans policies. Based on the two studies discussed here, this is likely because their policies are only weakly communicated to the groups who’d be affected (I hestitate to call these the “targeted audiences” however) and the effects on enrollment are small and subtle. For example, Waddell and Singell conclude that such policies do not increase the overall number of needy institutions at institutions but do have some effect in skewing the composition of that group toward somewhat lower-income students who’ve traveled longer distances to attend college. Since positive publicity generated by laudatory articles in the elite press may well generate enough new alumni donations to offset current costs, the whole thing may be close to a “wash” –under current circumstances. More effective publicity and outreach to families who do not read the mainstream liberal elite newspapers or visit websites like finaid.org to get their information about college, might change the game. Under those new conditions, I have to wonder– would no-loans policies continue to be so popular in elite higher education?

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