Report: UA shows fewer poor on rolls

Posted: October 27, 2017 at 3:32 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The percentage of lower-income students has been in decline at state schools like the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville as they recruit more upper-income students, according to a report released Thursday by Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America.

The report cited UA as an example of a trend seen among public flagship universities, describing research showing that for 32 schools with available data, two-thirds had a lower share of students from families in the bottom 40 percent of earners as compared with the late 1990s. At the same time, these schools enrolled a greater proportion of students from families among the top 20 percent of earners, the report states.

"Universities have been looking for alternative revenue sources. One of those is wealthy, out-of-state students," said Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst with New America and a report author, noting that states generally are providing less funding to higher education. The report described the bottom 40 percent on the income scale as less than $37,000 a year and the top 20 percent as more than $110,000.

UA's top enrollment officer, Suzanne McCray, said the school has been working to increase its number of Arkansas students -- many of whom are from lower-income families -- even as it has seen an enrollment surge based mostly on greater numbers of out-of-state students.

"Yes, we have increased the number of wealthy students on our campus. But it has allowed us to serve a larger number of students with need as well," said McCray, UA's vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions.

The report relied on data published earlier this year by researchers with the Equality of Opportunity Project, which is led by professors from Stanford, Brown and Harvard universities. They examined Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Department of Education data. The researchers examined trends over time by looking at groups of college students born between 1980 and 1991. These groups do not correspond exactly to the years the students attended college, because students born in a given year might enroll at different times.

But for the group of students born in 1980 compared with that of students born in 1991, authors generalized the trends seen over that time period. A person born in 1991 would turn 18 in 2009, a common age for college freshmen.

UA "increased the share of students in the top 20 percent by nearly 15 percentage points since the late 1990s, to 53 percent," the report states. Also, the "share of students in the bottom 40 percent declined by 8 percentage points during this time period, to just 12 percent of the student body," the report states.

At UA, the share of out-of-state students -- many from Texas -- increased during the time period covered by the report. This fall, based on preliminary data, 49 percent of the incoming freshman class of 5,065 students is from Arkansas. In the fall of 1998, about 15 percent of first-time, first-year students were from out-of-state, according to survey data from UA that listed 2,482 as the size of the degree-seeking, first-time freshman class.

McCray said a greater share of Arkansans receive Pell grants as compared with the total student body. Last fall, the most recent year with data available, 3,623 Arkansas undergraduates -- 28.4 percent -- received Pell grants, federal aid reserved for low-income students. For all students, approximately 20 percent receive Pell grants, McCray said.

The most recent freshman class set a record for its size, and it set a record for the number of first-year Arkansans, McCray noted. UA announced 2,476 Arkansans as part of its freshman class, based on preliminary data.

Burd, with New America, said the figures show more state universities recruiting out-of-state students at the expense of those within state borders.

"In getting these wealthy out-of-state students and using financial aid dollars to try to get them, you end up with fewer seats and fewer aid dollars for lower-income students," Burd said.

McCray described efforts to recruit students from inside the state and provide aid dollars, taking place even as UA recruits students from outside the state.

"I don't think it's weighing down those efforts. I think it's providing needed revenue," McCray said.

The report described the average family income for UA students as rising by almost 40 percent to more than $178,000 during the time period covered by the study, but McCray said she doubted the accuracy of that number.

"Seventy percent of our students last year were on federal financial aid," McCray said.

She said most students fill out applications for federal financial aid regardless of need because it's a requirement to be eligible for state scholarships. She said UA's own data for students who filled out such applications shows an average family income of $107,289 in 2016-17, up from $84,937 in the 2012-13 school year.

The report also highlighted how about 63 percent of UA's institutional aid given out is not based on financial need. McCray said that percentage has dropped to 60 percent, as overall aid dollars have increased to $26.4 million in 2016-17 from about $22.6 million in 2012-13, with fundraising efforts in place to increase aid dollars.

"We want to serve students who need our help," McCray said.

Metro on 10/27/2017