ST. LOUIS — An annual price tag that tops $52,000 aside, Washington University's commitment to luring more low-income students is hard to question.
Its financial aid director makes a personal enrollment pitch to each Pell Grant-eligible student who gains admission. The highly selective private school gave out nearly $70 million in scholarships to nearly 60 percent of its undergraduates last year. And the school regularly welcomes academically talented high schoolers with disadvantaged backgrounds, from Chicago public school students in the Target Hope pre-college academy to the 500 minority students in the high school Class of 2011 who enjoyed an all-expenses paid glimpse at campus life one recent weekend.
But the 158-year-old school ranks dead-last among the nation's 50 wealthiest schools when it comes to enrolling low-income students. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education review of federal data found that fewer than 6 percent of the school's roughly 8,500 undergraduates received Pell Grants, which are generally limited to students whose family income is below $40,000. Over the past several years, despite its best efforts, those percentages have actually declined slightly.
"The challenge for us is always, will they enroll?" said John Berg, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate admissions.
WashU's struggles to recruit more qualified students from poor families mirror those of other elite public and private universities, even as a growing chorus of higher education experts suggests that when it comes to affirmative action on campus, class – not race – is the more entrenched dividing line between the haves and the have-nots.
In general, recent efforts to improve college access for low-income students tend to succeed more often in community colleges and less selective state schools, experts say. And if the more selective schools don't bend their admissions standards, that can mean cut-throat competition for the comparatively few poor students with the necessary academic chops.
"A meritocratic system would provide a lot of affirmative action to economically disadvantaged students who beat the odds and a little bit of affirmative action based on race," said Richard Kahlenberg, an author and education researcher with The Century Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank. "Yet today's colleges and universities do the opposite; providing substantial preferences based on race and virtually no preferences based on class."
The Chronicle review found that less than 15 percent of undergraduates at the 50 colleges and universities – both public and private – with the largest endowments received Pell Grants in 2008-09, the most recent year for which federal Department of Education statistics are available.
That's an improvement of less than one percentage point from five years earlier, a time when many elite schools began making a concerted effort to boost the ranks of poor students By comparison, about 26 percent of students at non-selective public four-year schools receive Pell Grants.
Among the wealthiest schools, the Pell Grant rates range from 5.7 percent at Washington University in St. Louis to 30.7 percent at the University of California-Los Angeles.
At Harvard – which like Washington University, Princeton and other schools has eliminated student loans from aid packages for families earning less than $60,000 – just 6.5 percent of undergraduates received Pell Grants, the Chronicle reported.
But that analysis grouped nontraditional students from Harvard Extension, the university's night school, with those from Harvard College, the far more selective undergraduate experience. When only Harvard College students are considered, the Pell Grant rate increases to 12.8 percent, said admissions dean Bill Fitzsimmons.
The rate jumps to 14 percent if international students, who are ineligible for financial aid, are excluded. And the school's Pell Grant rate for the current academic year is closer to 17 percent, he said.
"Even though private education is a small player based on the numbers, we are open to bright students from all different ethnic and economic backgrounds," he said at a 2010 symposium. "Yes it still costs a lot of money, but the American dream is still alive. It's still possible for a bright, striving person to go anywhere in the world."
In recent years, more than 100 universities have adopted institutional initiatives to increase access for low-income students, according to a summary compiled by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The North Carolina effort, known as the Carolina Covenant and begun in 2003, is among the most successful. The program guarantees its participants – who must meet the same admission standards as other applicants – a debt-free education with a combination of grants, scholarships and work-study obligations.
Michigan, Virginia and other highly selective public universities soon adopted similar programs. But at many of the country's most selective schools, including Washington University, the outcome of those efforts doesn't match the rhetoric.
In some cases, qualified low-income applicants are deterred by the school's hefty costs, despite assurances of ample financial aid, said admissions officer Corey Webb.
"They look at the price tag and think, 'That's not really in my grasp,'" he said.
For others, including students from the two coasts, geography can be the biggest hurdle. Convincing bright students to come to land-locked St. Louis, with its harsh winters, isn't the easiest sell – not even for Webb, a native of Greenville, S.C., and 2008 WashU graduate. In his case, Webb was already familiar with the university from a five-week summer program he attended after his junior year in high school.
Sometimes living in the middle (of the country) can be a daunting thing," he said. "Before that program, I knew nothing about the university or the city."
Nancy Leopold, who nearly a decade ago helped start a nonprofit organization in suburban Washington, D.C., that helps low-income students attend college, suggests that higher education institutions work more closely with community-based groups such as her own that can target high performers and serve as matchmakers.
"We can spot the talent they're looking for," said Leopold, executive director of CollegeTracks, which helped its 2009 graduates from the Montgomery County, Md., school district earn more than $2.5 million in college grants and loans. "The schools we have relationships with know they can trust us. We're only going to send them kids who we think can succeed there."