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GW tries to widen applicant pool by purchasing low-income student information

Aly Kruse | Hatchet Staff Photographer
Aly Kruse | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Universities have for years bought the names and addresses of high school students with certain test scores, ZIP codes or academic interests to help coax them to campus.

Now, colleges including GW are starting to target another student demographic: those from low-income households.

Laurie Koehler, the recently hired enrollment manager who is reshaping the University’s recruitment strategy, said GW hopes to encourage top applicants from poorer backgrounds by promoting perks like robust financial aid packages, which help offset a $60,000 sticker price.

“We want great students, and what we don’t want to do is exclude great students because they think they can’t afford to come here,” Koehler said. “That’s what happens so often, is that those students self-select out of the applicant pool. They don’t even submit an application.”

The nationwide phenomenon has crystallized recently: About one-third of top high school students who landed in the bottom quarter of income distribution attended one of the nation’s 238 most selective institutions, compared to 78 percent of students in the highest income bracket, according to a study last year by researchers from Harvard and Stanford universities.

University President Steven Knapp said GW’s efforts are part of a much broader question about how to ensure low-income students don’t feel shut out of higher education, which is often a path to better jobs and higher pay.

“How can we make our University more accessible to students who might not otherwise think about coming here because they might think we’re too expensive, or they think we’re the wrong kind of place for them, or whatever it is, because they just don’t know enough?” Knapp said.

Enrolling a larger number of low-income students would be costly. Knapp acknowledged that reaching out to more low-income students isn’t enough – the University’s financial aid pool would also have to increase, likely courtesy of a larger pool of donations.

A focus on first generation
A key piece of GW’s push for access is taking into account students who are the first in their family to go to college – students who are often low-income as well.

The University began tracking the number of first-generation applicants this year, under the leadership of Koehler, the senior associate provost for enrollment management, and Karen Felton, the director of admissions – who were both first-generation college students themselves.

About 17 percent of GW’s applicants this year are from families in which neither parent has a bachelor’s degree, they said last week.

Jim Rawlins, former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and now director of admissions at the University of Oregon, said GW is joining colleges across the nation who are starting to track first-generation students and improve retention rates.

“While it can certainly help us understand a little bit more about how to reach out to the students before they apply or before they come, it’s much more important, in the big-picture sense that all of us are looking at it, and it has to do with holding on to those students once we have them,” Rawlins said.

A national effort to expand college access
The national focus on recruiting low-income students is a marked shift from past years, when cost-conscious colleges vied for high-achieving students who were also financially well-off by expanding merit scholarships.

The College Board has for years hesitated to hand out the names of low-income students, which it gathers from standardized tests and sells for about 37 cents per potential applicant. Officials feared that universities would exclude poorer students from their recruitment efforts and instead focus on high school students who would need less financial aid to enroll, news website Inside Higher Ed reported.

While GW has long boasted a net price lower than some competitor schools, it has struggled to expand its financial aid pool without the benefits of a large endowment or donor base. Instead, GW funds scholarships for its neediest students largely out of the tuition pool created by wealthier students, instead of using donations or interest from its endowment.

“We take more student aid out of tuition because we don’t have the endowment for student aid underneath it. So we have to build that up,” Knapp said in an interview Friday.

The University sets aside about $162 million in financial aid each year, compared to the scholarship fund, Power and Promise, which has raised $64 million since it was launched in 2009.

Susan Albertine, vice president of the office of diversity, equity and student success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said the push to recruit lower-income students is an attempt to align schools’ mission statements with their practices.

“As our population is changing so dramatically, there are a lot of institutions that are realizing, ‘Oh my goodness, if we just keep on being the destination for primarily white students, who identify themselves as white, and who are affluent, we are not going to look like this country in a few years and we need to do something about that,’” Albertine said.

– Gloriana Sojo contributed to this report.

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