Public colleges score low in help to poor, minorities

UM cited as using aid to lure high achievers

November 21, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Poor and minority college students are increasingly underrepresented in the nation's flagship public universities - including the University of Maryland, College Park - and a big part of the problem lies with the schools themselves, said a report released yesterday.

Though ineffective secondary schools and higher costs are impeding access to higher education, the nation's most influential public campuses are also directing more of their scholarship money to high-income, high-achieving students and neglecting the neediest, according to The Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for poor and minority students.

"More and more colleges are using their own financial resources to buy students who will help them walk up the rankings ladders," said Kati Haycock, co-author of the study.

Officials at College Park and at the University System of Maryland took issue with some of the report's assumptions, but said they are increasing their allocation of need-based aid and have launched initiatives to recruit more low-income and minority students to the campus of 25,000 undergraduates.

Using mostly statistics from 1992 to 2004, the Education Trust study graded each state's public flagship university on six measures of enrolling and graduating poor and minority students - those students most likely to be inhibited by rising costs and increasingly competitive admissions standards, it said.

The most common grade was F. Each campus also received an overall grade. Like 24 other campuses, College Park received an overall grade of D. No flagship received an A; only four earned Bs.

Though the number of minority and low-income undergraduates at College Park has grown in the past decade, the increases have not kept pace with the growth of those populations among college-bound Marylanders.

System Chancellor William S. Kirwan objected to the study's assumption that the state's flagship college should strive for proportional representation of Maryland's high-school graduates, noting that about a quarter of UM's undergraduates come from outside the state - itself a measure of diversity.

"The admissions standards at College Park, by state policy, by design, are based very highly on merit," he said. "Given the quality of our [high] schools that many individuals attend, they don't always have the records that will enable them to be admitted to a highly selective institution."

The Education Trust gave College Park relatively high marks for narrowing the so-called "achievement gap" between minority and white students, while noting that the minority graduation rate of 67 percent is still substantially lower than the white graduation rate of 80 percent.

Haycock said flagship universities need to go against the national trend and apportion more of their scholarship funds to students based on need rather than merit.

Maryland officials say they started doing that in 2004.

In 2001, 25 percent of financial aid dollars awarded by the university system's campuses was for need-based scholarships, with 54 percent given to high-achieving students, and the remainder to athletic and other special grants. But by 2007, 36 percent of the scholarship pie will go to need-based aid, system officials said.

At College Park, aid to needy students is estimated to comprise 38 percent of the campus' total institutional aid budget of $30 million dollars.

UM officials have pledged to allocate about a third of the school's current $1 billion fundraising campaign to student-aid programs, the bulk of which will go to needy students, they said.

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