Why are there so few Pell Grant students at the wealthiest American colleges?

Yesterday, New York Times ran a piece about this question in the blog Economix. The entry picked up a March 27 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Elite Colleges Fail to Gain More Students on Pell Grants,” which said that “just under 15 percent of the undergraduates at the country’s 50 wealthiest colleges received Pell Grants in 2008-2009, the most recent year for which national data are available.”

The author of the New York Times blogpost, David Leonhardt ’95, criticized the schools for their low percentages of Pell Grant recipients.

“[D]o you believe that more than 93 percent of the students who are most deserving of attending the nation’s most prestigious, best financed college come from the top half of the income distribution?” he asked, answering “I don’t.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education offered several possible reasons for the low number of Pell Grant recipients at these schools. Elite colleges might be competing with each other for a small group of low-income students rather than expanding the pool willing to consider attending such schools, it reported. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Finaid.com and Fastweb.com, two websites focused on college financial aid, told the Chronicle that since low-income students are less likely to be bale to afford test-prep classes or expensive extracurriculars, they are less likely to be strong candidates for selective schools.

That being said, Dean of Undergraduate Admisions Jeffrey Brenzel said in an e-mail that there are substantial problems with the Chronicle’s use of data, about which a number of schools in the study have complained. The Chronicle did note in the article that certain features of its data may cause the colleges in the report seem to have fewer Pell Grant students than they actually have.

Brenzel said it is true that top private colleges and flagship public colleges have lower percentages of Pell Grant recipients than the average college, a classification that includes all nonselective private colleges and public institutions other than flagship colleges.

“Given that students eligible for Pells have often had less access to adequate preparation for the most competitive colleges, this is not surprising,” he said. “On the other hand, the top private colleges, including Yale, are affirmative for low income students and have been successful in slowly but surely increasing their representation over time.”

According to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research, 766 Yale students currently receive Pell Grants, 14.13 percent of the student body based on fall enrollment numbers.