ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
How economically diverse are America's colleges? That's a question The New York Times has been asking in an annual survey the paper's been doing for the past couple of years. The big takeaway this year, according to Times columnist David Leonhardt, is that economic diversity at the nation's public, four-year colleges is on the decline. And David Leonhardt joins us.
Welcome to the program.
DAVID LEONHARDT: Thank you.
SIEGEL: First, tell us how you measure economic diversity in colleges.
LEONHARDT: There is a scholarship called the Pell Grant. It's the largest federal scholarship. And colleges have to report how many of their students receive Pell Grants. That means their students come from roughly the bottom 50 percent or bottom 40 percent of the income distribution.
SIEGEL: And what are the colleges that you're measuring?
LEONHARDT: We restricted this to colleges with a five-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent. And it's actually depressing how few colleges fit that category - only about 170.
SIEGEL: Public colleges and universities have historically provided a crucial step up in the economic and social scale for young Americans of modest means. How big a decline are you seeing in economic diversity?
LEONHARDT: At some schools, it's actually fairly shocking. At the University of California in San Diego, the Pell share of the freshmen class fell from 46 percent to 26 percent. And the reason is pretty clear - budget cuts from state governments.
SIEGEL: Meaning that more applicants just can't attend or the colleges can't help them pay for it? What is the mechanism there?
LEONHARDT: It's sort of all of the above. With less money, colleges have less money to enroll lower-income kids. So some of them are going out and recruiting more affluent kids actively. Others are probably not admitting the lower-income kids. But I find this really worrisome because investments in education, historically, have really paid for themselves. And the idea that we're making it harder for lower and middle-income Americans to go to flagship public universities strikes me as really short-sighted and self-defeating.
SIEGEL: This is the third annual New York Times survey. You're seeing this trend just over three surveys, or has it been going on longer than that?
LEONHARDT: It's been going on longer than that. So what happened with public colleges is that when the financial crisis hit in the 2009, 2010 window, a lot of states cut their budgets. They have stopped cutting them, but state support for higher education is still down 18 percent since 2008.
SIEGEL: Now, you've written about some increases in the share of students with Pell Grants at several private colleges and universities. And you say that successes don't necessarily track with the size of a university or a college's endowment. But despite some exceptions, from what I could see, all of the top 10 Pell Grant enrollments in private colleges are the predictable elite colleges. They were all Ivy's or Amherst, Williams, elite women's colleges.
LEONHARDT: Well, there are two different things that go into our ranking. One is the share of kids getting Pell Grants; the other is the cost. And you're absolutely right. The colleges with the biggest endowments, places like Harvard and Stanford and Princeton, they charge the least for low-income kids, once you take financial aid into account. But when you look at how many Pell students they actually enroll, there's more variation there. There are schools without huge endowments that are actually doing a better job enrolling poor kids than schools with bigger endowments. Vassar, Franklin and Marshall - these are schools that are not nearly as wealthy and yet they're actually more economically diverse. And I think they really deserve praise for doing that.
SIEGEL: You're measuring economic diversity. For years, we were more accustomed to seeing people measure racial, minority diversity. Do you think that such measures would track very closely to the rate of Pell Grants, or might the rate of African-American and Latino students be different from these measures of economic diversity?
LEONHARDT: I do think there would be real differences there. So if you look at the history of higher education, for a long time, these elite institutions excluded women, African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, just huge parts of the population. Starting in the late 1960s, into the '70s and '80s, they did much better on that score. The reason we started this is that the data suggests they haven't done as well making progress on economic diversity as they have on racial diversity. And so while they enroll kids of every religion, every race, every region, often those kids are diverse in every way except economically. And we wanted to capture this other aspect of it.
SIEGEL: David Leonhardt of The New York Times, thanks for talking with us.
LEONHARDT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.