Elite Colleges Admit Less Than 20 Percent of Pell Grant Recipients

Sixty-nine of the most selective private colleges in the United States ran significant annual budget surpluses over the last four years, even as they admitted fewer than 20 percent of Pell Grant recipients, a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce finds.

According to the report, The 20% Solution: Selective Colleges Can Afford to Admit More Pell Grant Recipients, a majority of Pell Grant recipients attend so-called open-access colleges with low graduation rates (49 percent), even though thousands are qualified to attend selective colleges with high graduation rates (82 percent). The report also found that some 86,000 Pell Grant recipients score at or above the median on standardized tests for students at selective colleges (1120 or higher on the SAT/ACT) but do not attend a more selective school. Based on the report’s findings, its authors conclude that if every college was required to have at least 20 percent Pell Grant recipients, an additional 72,000 Pell students would have to be admitted to 346 colleges and universities.

The report also examined the question of whether admitting more Pell Grant students would create too great a strain on the financial aid budgets of selective colleges and found that in addition to a median endowment value of $1.2 billion, many selective colleges ran average annual budget surpluses of $139 million between 2012 and 2015; that Pell Grant recipients who scored above the median (1120) on the SAT but are not attending selective colleges are overwhelmingly white; and that nearly three-quarters of Pell Grant recipients are from families making less than $30,000 per year.

"Competitive pressures keep elite colleges from admitting low-income students even when they are qualified," said Martin Van Der Werf, associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy at the Georgetown Center and coauthor of the report. "If the colleges themselves won’t change their admissions policies, it’s worth considering whether we should require a minimum enrollment standard of 20 percent Pell Grant recipients."