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Universities That Boost the Poorest Students to Wealth Are Becoming Harder to Afford

Stony Brook University has lifted many students from poverty to the highest income brackets, but access to the school is shrinking as tuition rises.

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STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Unlike many college students, Nicole Polanco has her future mapped out: Graduate from Stony Brook University in December, three and a half years after she started. Intern at two accounting firms during the winter and spring. Start graduate school in fall 2020. Finish a master’s degree in accounting in 2021. Become a certified public accountant.

Polanco, just 21, planned this pathway for herself while growing up poor in New York City, after emigrating with her family from the Dominican Republic when she was 3. Her parents were intent on setting her up for an affluent future. She agreed to aim for a career that pays well.

“I expect myself to make more than $72,000 immediately after graduation,” said Polanco, whose parents were educated professionals in the Dominican Republic but gave up their careers when they immigrated. Her mother, a former gynecologist, stayed home to raise children while her father, who had planned to be an economist, drove a taxi.

“Obviously I would like to see my parents without any financial obligations,” she said.

Polanco’s odds of reaching her goal are very good: Her college is one of a handful nationally with an especially strong track record of launching students out of poverty and into wealth. But shrinking higher education budgets and skyrocketing tuitions are jeopardizing the ticket to opportunity that institutions like Stony Brook provide.

Amanda Mills, assistant admissions director at Stony Brook University, speaks with potential students and their families on the Stony Brook campus. (Matt Krupnick/for The Hechinger Report)

According to a 2017 study by Harvard University researchers, Stony Brook — one of 64 campuses in the State University of New York system — sends more than 51 percent of its low-income students into the highest 20 percent of income levels. That and other factors combined to rank Stony Brook third nationally on the researchers’ “social mobility” index. Only California State University at Los Angeles and Pace University ranked higher.

These universities have taken steps to reverse a troubling trend: High-income children with below-average academic skills are more likely to be wealthy when they reach adulthood than a low-income child with strong academic skills, according to a report published this year by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Or, as the report’s authors put it, to achieve success in America, “it’s often better to be rich than smart.”

Fifty-one percent of Stony Brook’s low-income students have reached the highest 20 percent of income levels.

But access to institutions that are flipping that narrative and boosting social mobility, like 26,814-student Stony Brook, has declined. At large public universities, where prices are often significantly lower than at private schools, falling budgets have led to cuts in financial aid while admissions changes have led some schools to offer fewer spots to low-income students, said Laura Moore, deputy policy director for Harvard’s Opportunity Insights, which conducted the social mobility study.

Even as the Harvard researchers highlighted Stony Brook’s success in lifting students to the highest income brackets, they found that, as a percentage of its population, the school was giving help to fewer students who really needed it. Among students born in 1980 who went on to enroll at Stony Brook, more than 17 percent were from the lowest income quintile. For Stony Brook students born in 1991, who would have turned 20 in 2011, only 10.5 percent were from the bottom bracket. (The anonymized federal tax data used to analyze access and mobility rates was released as part of a one-time agreement with Harvard.)

Judith Berhannan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Stony Brook University, says the school gives low-income students “giant leaps forward” in social mobility. (Matt Krupnick/for The Hechinger Report)

One of the challenges for low-income students is the rising cost of education, especially at public universities such as Stony Brook. Between 2010-11 and 2017-18, the net price of attending Stony Brook rose by 48 percent for students whose families make $30,000 or less. By contrast, it increased 25 percent for students whose families make more than $110,000, according to The Hechinger Report’s TuitionTracker.org, which tracks college costs based on federal data.

Low-income students are also more likely than their higher-income peers to attend lower-quality colleges, drop out of school, have high debt after graduation and accept jobs that pay less than they should, said Jeff Strohl, research director for Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. And, to make matters worse, colleges awash in higher-income students tend to offer more scholarships — to students who don’t need the money.

“For whatever reason, money tends to follow folks who have money,” Strohl said.

Still, a college degree can lead to higher earnings, making institutions like Stony Brook that do well by poorer students a worthwhile investment, he said.

The secret to the success of many low-income students at Stony Brook appears to be the myriad programs that focus specifically on those students, especially the Educational Opportunity Program, which provides counseling and other support to first-generation students and those with academic and financial needs at SUNY and other colleges. EOP students are more likely to stay in school and to graduate within six years than other students, according to Stony Brook administrators.

The university also touts the success of the Diversity Professional Leadership Network, which provides intensive career counseling, skill training and professional mentors for minority students. During a recent meeting with Kimberly Dixon, director of employer engagement and diversity recruitment at the Stony Brook Career Center, DPLN students recounted their internship searches. Successes, such as students who had locked down postgraduation jobs or internships, earned high-fives from Dixon.

“Many of the students come in with a lack of confidence,” Dixon said before the meeting. “They understand that they’re in college and they’re happy to be here. But that next step to getting an internship, the next step to getting a full-time job is extremely scary for them. And they’re not quite sure that they can do it. So the design of the program is to increase that confidence in them.”

One of Stony Brook’s major success stories is Richard Gelfond, who graduated in 1976 and is now CEO of IMAX Corporation. He is also the chairman of Stony Brook’s foundation, which raises money for scholarships and other university projects.

Gelfond, 64, grew up in a blue-collar family on Long Island. His father was a furrier — “He was unemployed for about six months of the year,” Gelfond said — and never made more than $20,000 per year. But Gelfond always had his eye on entrepreneurship, shining shoes when he was 8 and then starting a sports-focused newspaper before entering college.

As the foundation’s chairman, he has fretted over the rising costs of attending Stony Brook and the difficulties faced by low-income students. State lawmakers don’t seem to have the political will to fund higher education adequately, he said, so Stony Brook has tried to raise more private funding for scholarships.

Philosophically, we should do everything we can to promote social mobility.
Richard Gelfond Chairman of Stony Brook’s foundation

“It’s imperfect, but we’ve tried to fill those gaps,” he said. “Philosophically, we should do everything we can to promote social mobility.”

The EOP program and the Diversity Professional Leadership Network were helpful for Teddy Boateng, 22, who graduated in May and now is a software engineer for Lockheed Martin in Texas.

The child of Ghanaian immigrants, Boateng grew up in Queens. His mother and father, a hotel worker and pastor, respectively, didn’t attend college or have much money, so Stony Brook’s targeted programs were essential to his success, he said. At the prompting of Career Center counselors, he attended a conference of black engineers, which directly led to his current job.

“Stony Brook helped me in ways I couldn’t have imagined,” Boateng said.

Yet, even with such successes, Stony Brook administrators say they would like to turn around the recent dip in the number of low-income students.

Colleges often measure how well they’re serving low-income students by looking at the number of students they enroll who receive federal Pell Grants, scholarships based on financial need. Although more than one-third of Stony Brook undergraduates — 34.5 percent — received Pell Grants in 2017-18, that’s down from a peak of more than 36 percent in 2011-12.

Of course, even the lower access figure was significantly better than those of some of the country’s top schools: Roughly 4 percent of the student body was low-income at both Harvard and Stanford universities, according to the Harvard researchers.

Students walk on the Stony Brook University campus on a fall afternoon. (Matt Krupnick/for The Hechinger Report.)

Stony Brook, located about 60 miles east of Manhattan on Long Island, would like to enroll more low-income students, said Matthew Whelan, the university’s vice president for enrollment strategy and relationship development, but he says it is hampered by geography. Just 7 percent of residents in surrounding Suffolk County are in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to about 28 percent in New York City’s Bronx borough and nearly 20 percent in Brooklyn.

“It certainly could be a result of our location,” Whelan said, noting that Suffolk County includes some of the country’s most affluent communities. “We’re smack dab between the Hamptons and Manhattan.”

New York City’s private Pace University, despite its high ranking on the social mobility index, has also faced affordability challenges. The net price for the lowest-income students has risen 81 percent, compared to 25 percent for the wealthiest students. About 29 percent of its students receive Pell Grants, down from 36 percent in 2011, according to the university.

Pace has tried to offer more financial aid to students who need it, but like many private colleges, it has struggled to attract enough money for that purpose.

“We do have resource constraints,” said Pace President Marvin Krislov. “We don’t have as large an endowment for financial aid as I would like.”

In contrast to Pace and Stony Brook, at Cal State Los Angeles students from the lowest income bracket paid 6 percent less in 2016-17 than those in 2010-11, while the wealthiest students paid nearly 2 percent more. About 60 percent of Cal State Los Angeles students are eligible for Pell Grants, a university spokeswoman said, a slight decline from nearly 64 percent in 2017. Its price ticked up last year, but at just over $2,000 a year to attend for low-income California residents, the university is a bargain.

In 2018, California was one of only four states — joining Hawaii, North Dakota and Wyoming — to spend more on higher education than in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The other states, including New York, have cut spending in the past decade.

We’re not just improving that student’s future; we’re also improving the lives of their families.
Matthew Whelan Stony Brook University’s Vice President for Enrollment Strategy and Relationship Development

In the states with fewer tax dollars to spend on students, public universities have turned to students to pay the difference. That added burden causes problems even at schools that have a good track record with low-income students.

As much as Stony Brook does to help students from low-income families, its programs can’t reach every student who needs them. Belinda Boakye, a daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, grew up poor in the Bronx and graduated in August. Boakye was rejected when she applied for EOP, a state-funded program. (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo often proposes cutting EOP programs in his annual state budget, but students have successfully lobbied the legislature to maintain funding in recent years.)

“It’s hard to get counseling or confide in someone who can’t relate,” said Boakye, 22, who noted that her advisers were mostly white and from more affluent backgrounds. She recalled the confusion shown by counselors when she explained her family’s financial troubles. “It just seemed like nobody could understand what it was like to be in that situation.”

Boakye, who plans to be doctor, navigated through college mostly on her own, and now works as a medical scribe. But, she said, several friends from similar backgrounds left Stony Brook before graduating because of high housing prices and because they didn’t find the help they needed.

Whelan, the Stony Brook enrollment vice president, said the school should do all it can to serve low-income and first-generation students. His parents did not attend college and he said he takes the university’s public mission seriously.

“We’re not just improving that student’s future; we’re also improving the lives of their families. Our goal is to be accessible to students from across the economic spectrum.”

This story about social mobility was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.