Two years ago, the University of Pittsburgh set a goal of enrolling more low-income students on its main campus. But the country’s poorest students still make up a smaller share of Pitt’s student body than they do at many other top public research universities, according to a PublicSource analysis.

Those students are Pell Grant recipients. The majority who receive the grants, a form of federal financial aid, come from families earning less than $40,000 a year. They’re more likely to be Black, Indigenous or Hispanic. They’re also likely to be first-generation college students or parents. 

When universities enroll Pell recipients, they allow low-income and marginalized students to access the increased lifetime earnings that a four-year degree often provides, making upward mobility more possible. But Pitt doesn’t provide the same level of access to these students as some other universities do. 

PublicSource compared Pitt’s enrollment of Pell recipients on its main campus to nearly 40 other leading public research universities in the country, using data from the U.S. Department of Education. Pitt tied with the Georgia Institute of Technology for enrolling the fewest undergraduate Pell recipients in the 2020-21 academic year. The students accounted for 13% of their student bodies, the data shows.

Compare that to the University of California, Irvine, where Pell recipients made up 38% of the student body that academic year. Or the University of South Florida, where they made up 32%. Or the University of Arizona, where they made up 29%. Or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where they made up 23%. 

The education department’s data generally allows for standardized comparisons to universities nationwide, but Pitt pushed back against PublicSource’s analysis. Spokesperson Jared Stonesifer said the department requires Pitt to include high schoolers taking courses at the university in its enrollment numbers. That tacks on up to 4,000 extra students who can’t receive Pell Grants, making the percentage of Pell recipients seem smaller than it is, he said. 

To exclude the high schoolers, PublicSource used the federal data to compare Pitt’s share of freshmen Pell recipients to the same group of nearly 40 top public research universities. Pitt tied with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and The Ohio State University’s main campus for enrolling the seventh-fewest in the 2020-21 academic year, at 17%. That percentage doesn’t account for transfer students who receive Pell Grants. 

Pitt provided data to show that, overall, undergraduate Pell recipients on its main campus made up about 17% of the student body last academic year. 

But even that percentage is “very far from meeting the mark” when roughly a third of undergraduates nationwide receive a Pell Grant, said James Murphy, deputy director of higher education policy at Education Reform Now, a nonpartisan think tank and advocacy organization. 

“I am somewhat distressed by that Pell number,” Murphy said. “What is the problem with Pitt? Why is it so uniquely positioned in such a way that it shouldn’t be doing as good a job as its peer public institutions?”

Stonesifer said Pitt has a need-blind admissions process that does not consider an applicant’s ability to pay. He said the university is also competing with other institutions over a declining number of high school graduates and is more likely to enroll fewer Pell recipients than less-selective institutions. Pitt admitted about half of its applicants in fall 2022.

However, the highly selective University of California, Los Angeles – which admitted about 9% of applicants in fall 2022 – enrolled a greater share of undergraduate Pell recipients in the 2020-21 academic year. So did The University of Texas at Austin, which admitted about 31% of applicants in fall 2022. So did Stony Brook University, which had roughly the same acceptance rate as Pitt last fall.

Experts on and advocates for college access told PublicSource that Pitt’s enrollment of Pell recipients could be shaped by the cost of attendance; a decline in state funding for public higher education; and a weaker institutional commitment to enrolling low-income students. Pitt’s admissions process, which emphasizes academic performance, could also favor wealthier students who come from well-resourced school districts, they said.

And when low-income students are unable to reap the same benefits that a college education can provide wealthier students, they said public universities like Pitt perpetuate existing social inequality.

“We have a responsibility to educate our citizenry,” said Nathan Daun-Barnett, a professor at the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education who specializes in access and equity. “A Pitt education is an exceptional education. … We need more folks, particularly low-income folks, who can otherwise benefit from it to have access to it.”

For students, money likely matters

When compared to the nation’s other leading public research universities, Pitt is one of the priciest for in-state families. That means the Pell Grant, which covers up to $7,395 a year, doesn’t bridge the gap for low-income students. Even with financial aid, Pitt charged families earning less than $30,000 a year, on average, just over $15,500 in the 2020-21 academic year. 

Almost all of the nation’s leading public research universities asked for less from households at that income level, including the Georgia Institute of Technology, which charged such families $8,447, on average.

Pennsylvania also provides less state financial aid to students attending public universities when compared to the United States overall, so there’s less funding available to supplement Pell Grants. The amount of aid has decreased in Pennsylvania by about 14% from 2001 to 2022, per full-time equivalent and adjusted for inflation, while most states have disbursed more over time, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

Lower-income and first-generation applicants are “going to get a letter from Pitt that, by and large, is going to suggest that they’re going to pay a significant amount out-of-pocket,” Daun-Barnett said. “If they can’t see what the job is at the end, and they know that they’re not going to be able to pay for it, they tend to be the group that is most debt-averse.”

Pennsylvania public universities have also faced downward-trending appropriations of state funding, which made up 32% of Pitt’s budget in 1975 but now cover less than 10%, according to the university. Stonesifer said the state’s decline in funding is a “critically important” factor that has left Pitt to shoulder the burden of making its education affordable.

The public four-year universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education – which Pitt is not a part of – enroll far more Pell recipients. In the 2020-21 academic year, they made up 30% of the student body at Slippery Rock University, 39% at East Stroudsburg University and a whopping 69% at Cheyney University, according to data from the federal department of education. 

The state’s appropriation, however, covers more of the system’s overall budget, at about 20% in the 2021-22 fiscal year. 

While the state’s funding of Pitt likely plays a role in the university’s decision-making, Murphy said he believes the small share of Pell recipients also shows that Pitt is not sufficiently prioritizing enrollment of low-income students. 

He added that, at universities like Pitt, “if you’re going to increase the enrollment of students from low-income households, it’s going to be by design.”

Stonesifer said that the university’s branch campuses, which enroll far fewer students than the main campus, have a greater share of Pell recipients. With those campuses factored in, Pell recipients make up about 20% of the university’s entire student body, he said. 

Pitt commits to growth, but Pell enrollment remains nearly flat

In 2021, outgoing Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher committed to “making measurable progress” toward increasing the university’s share of low-income students on its main campus to 20% by 2025, according to a report from the American Talent Initiative, a group of more than 130 colleges nationwide that share similar goals in this area. The share of Pell recipients is used as a proxy for low-income student enrollment.

A one-pager from the initiative shows that Pitt’s share of Pell recipients has grown by less than 1% on its main campus since the 2015-16 academic year, to about 17% as of the last academic year. Pitt provided PublicSource with the institution-specific data. Because the initiative keeps other schools’ data confidential, PublicSource was unable to compare Pitt’s growth to individual participating universities.

Laura Perna, vice provost for faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in college access and affordability, said it’s helpful for universities to have these goals and to monitor their progress. “If we care about diversity in the student body, if we care about access to higher education for students from low-income families, then we have to be paying attention,” she said.

Perna said Pitt’s current share of Pell recipients suggests that the university “should be looking very carefully and closely at the mechanisms that are in place to enroll students from low-income families.”

Murphy thought Pitt’s goal was a good start, but not the finish line. “They should be beating it already, and they should certainly not rest on their laurels if and when they reach that 20%,” he said. 

Stonesifer said that Pitt “has made historic investments in supporting Pell Grant recipients to obtain college degrees.” The university launched the Pitt Success Pell Match Program in 2019, which provides enough institutional aid to double students’ Pell Grants. Pitt’s share of Pell recipients on its main campus grew from about 15% the academic year the program launched to roughly 17% last academic year.The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in Oakland. (Video by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Pitt “will continue to intensify recruitment efforts” to meet its 20% goal, Stonesifer said. He did not state whether the university will seek to maintain or increase that goal after 2025. 

A spokesperson with the Georgia Institute of Technology, which tied with Pitt in PublicSource’s analysis for enrolling the smallest share of undergraduate Pell recipients, wrote in a statement: “We are committed to ensuring more of our future undergraduates come from low-income backgrounds.” They said the university’s 10-year strategic plan prioritizes this commitment.

Add a pledge to the Promise?

To improve enrollment of Pell recipients at Pitt, experts in college access recommended that the state increase both its appropriations for public universities and its financial aid for residents; that Pitt help ensure that residents can access the academic preparation needed to meet its admissions standards; and that Pitt evaluate the resources it allocates to providing institutional aid to low-income families.

Those efforts may not solve the problem entirely. While the cost of attendance is likely a larger factor shaping Pitt’s enrollment of Pell recipients, some low-income students may also choose not to attend because they feel out of place on campus, Daun-Barnett said. There isn’t a simple answer to tackling the problem of belonging, he said, but universities can start by making greater commitments to institutional aid.

He pointed to The Ohio State University, a leading public research institution where 20% of enrolled students receive Pell Grants, as making positive strides. The university began piloting a debt-free degree program this fall, providing the 125 participants with enough institutional aid and work-study opportunities to supplement their expected family contribution and fully cover their estimated cost of tuition. Ohio State raised $100 million to fund the program as of this fall.

Daun-Barnett also suggested that Pitt cover the remaining tuition costs, after financial aid, for students who receive the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship. The scholarship provides up to $5,000 a year for graduates of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, but the award faces an uncertain future due to a potential lack of funding. The nonprofit that disperses the award has committed to raising enough money to support the scholarship through the class of 2028.

“If I were committed to it as an institution,” Daun-Barnett said, “I would be going to the Pittsburgh Promise and saying, ‘What can we do to help more of your students attend our institution and be successful in doing so?’”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Alexandra Ross.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.