Photo: U. of Colorado at Boulder

Despite modest gains over the last decade, the University of Colorado Boulder still ranks near the bottom of the list of flagship public universities in enrollment of low-income students.  

The percentage of Pell Grant recipients at the university moved from 12% in 2008 to 16% a decade later, ranking Boulder as fifth-lowest among all flagships in the country, according to an analysis by Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization and a Chalkbeat partner.

In a state where two out of five public school students are considered low-income, CU Boulder’s record raises questions about whether it is fulfilling its mission to educate Coloradans from all backgrounds, not just the wealthiest students.

It’s problematic that Colorado’s top public institution doesn’t represent the state’s native-born population, said Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center, which focuses on economic mobility in Colorado. The disparity in access, he said, could be hindering economic opportunities of Colorado’s low-income residents.

“Colorado is quickly becoming a playground for well-educated folks from out of state and becoming a place that’s harder and harder to live for the people who were born and raised here,” Wasserman said.

CU officials point to efforts to boost enrollment of Pell-eligible students but acknowledge more work must be done. At the same time, other public universities, such as the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, have grown their numbers significantly, providing possible lessons.

Boulder struggles to enroll students with Pell Grants 

Across the country, Pell Grants can measure the economic background of students that colleges and universities serve.

Nationally, about 33% of college students receive a Pell Grant. They come overwhelmingly from families that earn less than $30,000 a year.

Most flagships enroll fewer low-income students than other public colleges in their states.

Boulder stands out, however, for just how few of these students it enrolls. Its numbers look a lot more like selective private universities such as Harvard University and Stanford University — where 16% and 17% of their student populations, respectively, are Pell students — and less like its public flagship peers in places like Arizona and California — where 28% and 30%, respectively, are Pell students.

In recent years, researchers and student advocates have put pressure on the nation’s top universities to do a better job of serving low-income students. Schools like Washington University in St. Louis have responded by working to improve their records. 

Elsewhere, schools such as University of Texas at Austin have taken steps to better meet the needs of low-income students. Even during the pandemic, the flagship campus has increased its Pell enrollment numbers, thanks in part to  new scholarship programs

Other flagships also have poor records 

At most flagships, Pell students make up between 20% and 30% of undergraduates.  Outliers in Montana, Nebraska, and New Mexico do better, with about one in three of their students eligible for Pell Grants.

Few flagships, though, excel at getting large numbers of low-income students in the door. For instance, at both the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, fewer than 15% of the undergraduates are Pell eligible.

“It seems to be the higher-wealth schools that tend to struggle,” said Tiffany Jones, Education Trust senior director of higher education policy.

As a whole, these wealthier public institutions are failing to live up to their promise of providing an affordable pathway to a high-quality bachelor’s degree, the Institute for Higher Education Policy concluded in a report it published last year about flagships.

Flagships receive nearly 40% more state appropriations per full-time undergraduate student than do other public four-year institutions, the report said. Because of this taxpayer support, flagships are typically expected to prioritize serving state residents. 

At the same time, students who attend these selective universities tend to have better completion rates and better economic outcomes than students who attend less selective institutions, the report said. 

“As a result, flagships can be great equalizers, yet this analysis finds that many flagships have not fully realized that potential and, instead, cost too much and provide too little aid to be affordable for low-income students.” 

But, at many flagships, financial aid falls tens of thousands of dollars short for a typical first-year student from a low-income background, the report said. Those students either can’t afford to attend or leave school with huge debt.

Affordability is a key reason many students decide not to attend these colleges, Jones said. Her organization wants Congress to increase the size of the Pell Grant award, which offers a maximum of $6,345 a year and doesn’t cover the majority of costs at the nation’s largest public institutions. (CU Boulder’s tuition alone, for example, is more than $23,000 a year.)

Standardized tests are another obstacle to access, Jones said. Research shows the tests are often biased against low-income and minority students.  

Students’ perceptions that flagships are not for them, Jones said, can be a problem, too.

To help increase enrollment, flagship institutions can remove standardized testing requirements and create programs that ensure students with Pell Grants know how to not only successfully enroll in the school but also complete a degree, Jones said.

And wealthier schools need to shift their culture to welcome low-income students, Jones said. For instance, an average of 75% of students at historically Black colleges and universities receive a Pell Grant. Those schools create services such as food and clothing pantries for students which aids in making students feel welcome, Jones said.

“That’s not a whole initiative or grant,” Jones said, “it’s just a part of the fabric of the institution.”

Boulder officials say they’ve made strides

Boulder still has a lot of work to do to improve the rate at which it enrolls Pell Grant recipients, its officials acknowledge.

The mission of the school, said spokeswoman Deborah Mendez-Wilson, is to serve Colorado residents. The university works to recruit students from varied socioeconomic, geographic, and ethnic diversity.

The school made strides in the last decade enrolling more Pell students and increasing financial support for those students, Mendez-Wilson said. 

Pell-eligible enrollment has increased by more than 1,600 students, or 40% of the school’s total undergraduate enrollment growth of 4,171 students, over the last 10 years, she said. 

The school also has worked to improve affordability even as tuition has increased. The school runs a CU Promise program, which offers grants to Pell-eligible students from Colorado to pay for tuition and fees, and offers a work-study award to help cover other educational expenses. 

Mendez-Wilson said the university agrees that access to higher education is a powerful force for social change and personal development.

“We acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to be done and remain committed to continuing this momentum,” Mendez-Wilson said.

Incoming Board of Regents member Ilana Spiegel campaigned on creating more support for low-income and minority students and ensuring CU Boulder and the CU system’s other schools better reflect the state’s high-school population.

A student’s ZIP code shouldn’t dictate whether they are able to enroll at CU Boulder, Spiegel said. 

“The demographics and the population of the state has changed,” she said, “And we need to be able as a system to grow to meet those needs.”

Colorado recently changed its higher education funding formula to give more money to colleges that enroll and graduate the state’s neediest students. 

But Spiegel said more needs to be done at the board level. She hopes to find ways to lower tuition, remove standardized testing requirements and help cover student living expenses.

Pell Grant students turn to Northern Colorado

It is possible for public universities to do better. And, in fact, another Colorado university has.

The University of Northern Colorado’s Pell Grant student population jumped from 17% to 29% in the last decade. 

Students like Michael Fallander, 22, a senior who has relied on Pell Grants to attend college, are drawn to the school because of its lower tuition and the lower cost of living in a city like Greeley. UNC, at just under $10,000 per semester, is only a couple thousand dollars cheaper than CU Boulder, but Fallander said apartments cost far less than in Boulder. 

Fallander said he saved some money by going to UNC while not having to sacrifice the quality of his education.

“UNC is kind of the middle ground in Colorado,” Fallander said. “In the end, affordability was a big part of my decision.”

Marty Somero, UNC’s financial aid director, said he can’t single out any initiative that’s helped attract more Pell students to the school. But as Pell Grant student enrollment began to increase after the Great Recession, Somero said, the school saw the need to increase resources for students.

UNC believes it’s important for students to know they can complete college, he said, which is why it’s focused more on low-income student college access.

The school works with Aims Community College to make it easier for students to transfer, Somero said. Generally, community colleges serve a higher percentage of low-income students.

The school also started to target more Pell-eligible students by closely working with the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which helps Denver-area students navigate college enrollment, to help attract students. The school also increased financial aid advising and counseling services over the past decade to help ensure Pell students are successful. 

And the school offers an automatic scholarship to Greeley-area students who graduate with a minimum 2.5 GPA and has increased its scholarship offerings over the years, Somero said. 

In the end, Somero said how willing a school is to work with low-income students can carry a lot of weight in the decisions they make to attend a school.

“You can establish a good or bad reputation among some students,” Somero said. “And I think what we are seeing is a lot of the services and programs we’ve offered come to fruition.”

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.