This Funder Rewards Colleges for Enrolling and Supporting Low-Income Students

It is no secret that a large gap exists between rich and poor Americans when it comes to higher education access and completion, despite efforts to bridge it. President Obama’s proposal to make two years of college free has met resistance from congressional Republicans, who balk at the cost of such a program. Pell grants and tuition tax credits are available, but even the highest Pell grant award has not kept pace with rising college costs.

Funders large and small who are involved in higher education have made college access programs an important part of their grantmaking. These programs have encouraged colleges to do more to enroll students from low-income families and provide the support needed for them to graduate.

Despite these and other efforts, however, the college completion gap between rich and poor remains wide—and recent studies suggest it is growing. A recent study analyzing federal education and population data revealed that the percentage of students from low-income families earning a college degree inched up only 3 percentage points, from 6 to 9 percent, between 1970 and 2013. Meanwhile, the proportion of affluent students completing college jumped from 44 percent to 77 percent in the same time period.

So one funder decided, “Hey! Instead of creating programs to enroll more low-income students and hoping that they work, how about rewarding colleges that are actually doing something about this problem?” That funder is the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which just unveiled its new Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence.

Under this new prize, the Virginia-based funder will award $1 million, with no strings attached, to the college or university that shows the greatest success enrolling and graduating low-income students. Vassar College is the inaugural winner of the prize. Nearly a quarter of Vassar freshmen receive Pell grants, up from 12 percent in 2007, according to a report last year by the New York Times. The Times analysis, which influenced the funder’s decision, ranked Vassar first among colleges with a four-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent to enroll and support low-income students.

The former women’s college also has doubled its need-based financial aid budget, while holding down spending on faculty and staff, according to the Cooke Foundation. Vassar plans to use the prize to award more scholarships to low-income students, as well as first-generation and undocumented students.

Vassar is not alone in doing more to recruit and support low-income students. The Times analysis also cited efforts by Grinnell College in Iowa, Amherst College, Harvard, and the University of Florida.

This award for greater economic diversity in higher education aligns perfectly with other work by the JKCF, which emphasizes helping high-achieving, low-income students. In 2005, the foundation helped launch and subsequently expand the National College Advising Corps, which recruits recent college graduates to serve as advisers to recruit low-income students with high potential into top institutions of higher education. The funder awards scholarships through its Jack Kent Cooke Scholars program and also has funded programs to help community college students successfully transition to leading universities, furthering their education.

What's more, one of the funder's leaders in these efforts will now lead a national college access organization. Earlier this year, Emily Froimson left her position as vice president of programs at JKCF to become president of the Gateway to College National Network, which strives to expand educational opportunities for underrepresented students.

Because low-income students need financial aid, they can strain college budgets, providing schools with a disincentive to enroll them. However, the education gap between haves and have nots has significant consequences for the nation’s social and economic well-being. Here’s hoping that Vassar ‘s example and awards such as this one from the Cooke Foundation will spur other institutions into action.