The government is putting a spotlight on colleges that help low-income students graduate. (Butch Dill/AP)


Before low-income families shuffle their children off to college, the Obama administration wants them to know which schools will give their sons and daughters the best shot at graduating.

On Thursday, the Department of Education issued a report highlighting public and private universities that excel at enrolling and graduating students who are needy enough to qualify for federal Pell grants. Those students comprise at least 40 percent of the population at all of the schools featured in the report and 50 percent of them graduate within six years.

“Although the percentage of 23-year-olds with some college experience has increased considerably, their likelihood of graduating strongly correlates to income or racial background, which means that we must shift our attention toward the more essential metric of success: degree attainment,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said in prepared remarks.

Regional public universities, such as the University of California at Irvine and the Bernard M. Baruch College of the City University of New York, have some of the best track records in serving low-income students, as do private religious schools and women’s colleges, such as Agnes Scott College. What makes many of these schools stand out is their concerted effort to improve outcomes for students with modest means. That might mean providing emergency financial aid to keep students from dropping out or building out academic advisement and mentoring.

While graduation rates for Pell-eligible students are a bit lower at public universities than private ones, state schools enroll a far larger number of low-income students and tend to keep costs down for them, the report said. Still, many schools with large populations of low-income students are not graduating them at the same rate as the general student population.

The department is calling on more colleges and universities, especially those with financial resources, to step up and increase the number of low-income students they enroll and graduate. Selective colleges boast some of the highest graduation rates and post-college employment rates, making them well positioned to serve students who need the most support. Yet most of these schools enroll the smallest share of low-income students.

“We need to acknowledge the ways in which we are becoming a caste system of colleges and universities – in which wealthier high school students get personalized college counseling, rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and disproportionate admittance to the nation’s top universities, while, all too often, poorer students get shortchanged on these things,” King said.

There are a number of exclusive school taking in larger numbers of low-income students and providing enough financial aid to keep them in school. Just a fifth of the student population at Amherst College in Massachusetts are eligible for Pell, but 94 percent of those students graduate in six years and pay an average $3,739 a year to attend. Instead of using its money to upgrade facilities, the school decided to provide more financial aid to attract and retain low-income students, the report said.

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