Amherst a leader among elite colleges in enrolling students who need Pell grants

First, selective colleges are in the midst of releasing admission decisions for the fall term. It will be interesting to see whether this recruiting cycle has widened access for needy students at elite schools or narrowed it. How many Pell-eligible students will the Ivy League admit when its schools release decisions at 5 p.m. Thursday?

Second, President Obama is developing a system to rate colleges. Pell grants are likely to factor into federal ratings because they are a widely accepted measure of commitment to access.

At Amherst, a private college in Massachusetts with about 1,900 students, 21 percent of undergraduates are Pell-eligible this school year. As recently as the 2005-06 school year, the share was 13 percent.

To raise the share that much requires not only admitting more needy students but also expanding financial aid. The maximum Pell grant, $5,645, covers a tenth or less of the full cost of attending an elite private college.

Some colleges do not have the resources to make up the difference for more than a small share of students.

Some, however, have endowments big enough to fund more financial aid. But, for whatever reason, they do not.

“You really have to have top-to-bottom support and enthusiasm for access and opportunity,” Amherst President Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin told The Post in a recent visit to Washington. “It has to be faculty and students as well as administration, trustees and alumni — and obviously donors.”

Martin said Amherst’s drive to reshape its student body began well before she took the helm in 2011. The school, which has a $1.8 billion endowment, has plowed huge resources into financial aid — $46 million this school year. The aid budget, after adjusting for inflation, has more than tripled since 1992.

All that aid is essential because the full price of tuition, fees, room and board at Amherst tops $58,000 a year.

For Martin, college access is not an abstraction.

A former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and provost of Cornell University, Martin grew up in rural Virginia, between Lynchburg and Roanoke. Her parents were skeptical of the value of college and did not think they could afford to send her. She went to the public College of William and Mary with a scholarship.

“I think about this a lot,” Martin said.

Martin said that even with Amherst’s wealth, the open-access policy forces hard choices. “There are always trade-offs,” she said. Sometimes that means postponing a big remodeling project. The Amherst student center, she said, could use a makeover. It is, Martin said, “too small and not laid out in a way that draws students to it and gives them the space they need.”

Another issue is the amount of aid available for students from middle-income families. At Claremont McKenna College in California, federal data show about 14 percent of undergraduate students are Pell-eligible. Hiram E. Chodosh, president of Claremont McKenna since July 1, said the importance of the statistic should not be overstated.

“We have to be very careful not to create a ‘barbell effect,’” Chodosh told The Post in a recent visit to Washington, referring to a scenario in which a college might load up on full-paying students from affluent families as well as full-ride students from poor families. In that case, students in the middle — with some need but not high need — could get squeezed out.

Chodosh said he wants a “commitment to socioeconomic diversity across the spectrum.” He talked about recruiting students from families with low, moderate, middle and even “lower-upper-middle” income.

Measuring that kind of diversity could be tricky. Federal education statistics tend to focus on poverty.

A Washington Post analysis of 41 highly selective colleges and universities — drawn from U.S. News World Report listings — found eight in which at least one out of five undergraduates is Pell-eligible. The University of California at Berkeley had the highest share, 33 percent.

Here is a ranking of the Pell-eligible share for Top 20 schools on two U.S. News lists, one of them for national universities and the other for national liberal arts colleges. The Pell share is drawn from federal data on the 2011-12 school year.

It is worth noting that Harvard and Princeton universities, seen as leaders in higher education, lag many other schools on this measure.

Note: The U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Naval Academy, both highly ranked by U.S. News, are not listed here because they do not charge tuition.

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