Often it’s other schools that cater to a large share of low-income students

If you were to only rely on the U.S. News & World Best College Rankings, you might get the sense that the colleges best at keeping students out of debt are also some of the most prestigious.

But the ability of these schools to graduate students with minimal debt loads comes with a caveat: they don’t enroll many poor students. Of the five colleges that U.S. News says graduates students with the least amount of student debt, three — Harvard, Princeton and Yale — enroll a relatively small share of students who are eligible for a Pell grant, the money the government provides low-income students to attend college, according to government data or figures provided by the school. At those schools the share of Pell-eligible students is less than 20%.

By comparison, nearly 40% of undergraduates received Pell grants during the 2015-2016 academic year, according to an analysis of government data by researchers at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank.

“If you’re a college and you’re offering a very low level of prospective debt to students, that means nothing if the people who overall have more unmet financial need, or are more likely to have to borrow, can’t get into your institution,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a left-leaning think tank.
*Harvard provided its own data on Pell eligible students, which differs from the College Scorecard.

The list comes at a time of growing concern among higher education leaders and policymakers over how well elite colleges help to facilitate economic mobility. While elite schools, like the three featured on the list, typically offer very generous financial-aid policies that cover the costs of the low-income students they enroll, they take in so few that the policies do little to even the playing field in higher education.

There’s nothing new about prestigious colleges being bastions of the well-off, said Faith Sandler, the executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, a nonprofit that works with low-income students in the college process. What’s changed over the past several years: Schools are publicizing all the ways they help low-income students, she said.

“The Ivies and then everybody who aspired to be an Ivy published policies that said ‘please come, come through our gates, once you’re in, if your income is below a certain threshold we promise you will not have to borrow,’” she said. “Mostly, we have found that it changed things very little other than to assure alumni and donors of the good intentions of the university.”

Prestigious colleges often counter this characterization with data on their efforts to cater to low-income students. At Harvard, for example, one in five students comes from a family with an annual income of $65,000 a year or less, according to data provided by a Harvard spokesperson. As part of Harvard’s financial aid policies, these students pay nothing to attend Harvard. Harvard has also increased the share of the student body who is eligible for a Pell grant from 9% to 18% between 2003 and 2015, according to that data.

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