Just 20 percent of college-goers fit the stereotype of being young, single, full-time students who finish a degree in four years. College students today are more likely to be older, part-time, working, and low-income than they were three decades ago. Many are the first in their families to go to college. This APM Reports documentary shows how universities are adapting to serve these new students. It explains changing demographics, and explores what colleges must do to remain engines of social mobility. Listen to our documentary
"What the colleges will say is that students don't choose to apply to those institutions, and there's some truth to that," said Jon Marcus
, who covers higher education for The Hechinger Report
Marcus joined Emily Hanford on this week's podcast. He said many low-income, first generation college students are scared off by the "sticker price" at prestigious schools.
"And they don't think they can afford to go," Marcus said. "They don't understand that very few people pay the actual list price. That most students, including low-income students, can probably qualify for a lot of financial aid - both institutional and external financial aid. So there's some self-selection going on."
But this only partly explains things, because it's not hard for a college to find students with good test scores - all they have to do is buy a score report from the College Board. The question is: Do they really want a lot of low-income students at their schools?
"If you think it through, colleges and universities have zero incentive to recruit or enroll these students," Marcus said.
The schools have to offer a lot of financial aid to a student from a low-income family.
"And what they get is one student and no revenue," Marcus said. "Or they could divide up that financial aid among five wealthy students whose families can afford the rest of the tuition. And they get five students and some revenue toward the bottom line."
This practice is called "merit aid," and it's typically used by colleges to lure students who can pay some or most of the tuition away from enrolling at competing institutions. But there are some schools that have decided to do away with merit aid in favor of need-based aid.
Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is one.
A few years before Dan Porterfield became president of the college in 2011, only 5 percent of incoming students received Pell grants. He was hired to help change that.
"This is not rocket science," Porterfield said in an interview with Educate. "Strong students from low-income backgrounds are in ample supply and are by no means hiding."
But low-income students were not going to know about -- or necessarily be interested in applying to -- a small college in southern Pennsylvania that has traditionally served mostly white students from affluent families. Dan Porterfield says Franklin and Marshall stepped up recruiting at high schools where there are lots of lower income students. The college set up a summer program for high-achieving low-income high school kids. But Porterfield says the most important thing the college did was to make need-based aid its number one financial priority.
"Not every institution can use the particular strategies that we've used," Porterfield said. "But every institution can look at the array of ways that they generate revenue or the array of ways they spend money and find a way to prioritize more investment in need based aid."
The board of trustees at Franklin and Marshall has more than doubled the school's need-based financial aid budget since 2008. This past fall, 19 percent of incoming students at Franklin and Marshall received Pell grants.
To hear more about what else Franklin and Marshall is doing to provide more aid to low- and moderate-income students, subscribe to Educate.
In this episode, we also feature an excerpt from our 2014 documentary, "The New Face of College." The excerpt is from a segment about Amherst College, which has been working to diversify its campus since the early 2000s. We reached out to Amherst to see what has changed since we visited in 2014. The college still hosts a celebration for first-generation graduates and their families.
As spokesperson Caroline Hanna said in an email: "We remain as committed as ever to recruiting and enrolling first-generation and low-income students."
Educate is a collaboration with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization that focuses on inequality and innovation in education.