Diversity and Democracy

Achieving Equity and Excellence at Colleges and Universities with High Graduation Rates: Early Lessons from the American Talent Initiative

The notion that quality in undergraduate education should transcend sector and segment—from community colleges and regional public universities to state flagships and Ivy League schools—is undisputed. However, college ranking systems sometimes equate quality with spending and selectivity rather than with ensuring success for a wide variety of students. Consequently, in colleges and universities with the highest graduation rates, diversity and equity issues have often taken a backseat to other priorities.

Selective colleges and universities increasingly understand, however, that the pursuit of excellence must include efforts to increase student diversity and equity in educational outcomes. They recognize the research demonstrating that pipelines of talented students have gone untapped, that demographics of prospective students are shifting, and that diversity can improve the quality of learning in higher education and innovation in the workplace. Despite decades of inertia on the issue, we are optimistic that selective colleges and universities—as a sector—are approaching an inflection point.

Our optimism stems from early learning from the American Talent Initiative (ATI). Launched in 2016 as a Bloomberg Philanthropies–supported collaboration co-managed by the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and Ithaka S+R, ATI brings together colleges and universities that lead the nation in graduation rates (with six-year graduation rates above 70 percent) to expand opportunity for talented students from lower-income backgrounds. To build momentum and promote accountability, the more than one hundred ATI-member institutions have coalesced around a common goal: by 2025, to educate an additional fifty thousand low- and moderate-income students each year. While much work must be done to achieve this goal, the early results are promising. Just two years after its launch, ATI announced that between academic years 2015–16 and 2017–18, member institutions had enrolled an additional 7,291 undergraduates who qualified for Pell Grants—federal aid awarded to students with the highest financial need (Pisacreta, Schwartz, and Kurzweil 2018).

Importantly, to sustain momentum and contribute to the goal, each member has made specific commitments, accompanied by concrete plans. Nearly all these plans address diversity and equity issues related to students of different income levels, races, and ethnicities, as well as veterans and other groups traditionally underserved at selective institutions. While ATI focuses on socioeconomic diversity, these early learnings are relevant to efforts to improve diversity and equity for multiple student populations.

Motivations for Advancing Diversity and Equity

By joining ATI, selective colleges and universities are helping change the conversation about the role of the institution in improving access and opportunity. Not long ago, colleges and universities typically explained inequities in access and attainment across income levels as an unavoidable byproduct of other inequities, including disparities in K–12 schooling, inadequate wages, and diminishing public spending on tuition assistance. While in some cases this narrative endures, many institutions now recognize that they can make a difference—that they must take responsibility not only for increasing diversity by ensuring access for highly qualified students from traditionally underrepresented groups but also for advancing equity in outcomes by transforming their policies and practices to give all students the academic and nonacademic supports they need to succeed.

Recent research supports this view, showing that student access and success depend on the actions of colleges and universities, not merely the characteristics of students and society. The Equality of Opportunity Project demonstrates that similar colleges achieve very different rates of social mobility for students (Chetty et al. 2017). Research conducted to award the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence shows that some two-year institutions achieve higher and more rapidly improving success rates for students from lower-income and minority backgrounds than do others (Wyner 2014).

For years, higher education leaders and practitioners have assumed that there are not enough lower-income students capable of excelling at highly selective colleges, notwithstanding the growing number of high school graduates from families with incomes in the bottom quintile who are progressing to postsecondary education (National Center for Education Statistics 2017). But recent research has proven that there are many highly capable, low-income students who are not applying to these schools. A study by Hoxby and Avery (2013) demonstrated that nearly 40 percent of the top achievers, according to high school grade point average (GPA) and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, come from families in the bottom half of the income distribution. The study also found that, each year, approximately 12,500 of these students do not apply to a single selective institution.

More than 80 percent of incoming US community college students—who disproportionately hail from low- and moderate-income families—intend to attain a bachelor’s degree eventually. However, only 14 percent of community college students receive a bachelor’s degree within six years of community college entry (Jenkins and Fink 2016). Even top students could use more support navigating the transfer pathway. Each year, more than fifty thousand lower-income community college students with top grades do not go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Approximately fifteen thousand of those students have GPAs higher than 3.7, indicating the potential to succeed at competitive colleges and universities (LaViolet et al. 2018).

College leaders, faculty, and practitioners are paying attention to evidence that diverse classrooms and workforces strengthen outcomes. Research on the value of diversity to all college students—in fostering not just open minds but also skills—has informed the legal battle on affirmative action and institutions’ work at the intersection of educational quality and equity (Wells, Fox, and Cordova-Cobo 2016; Gurin et al. 2002). A Gallup-Purdue survey found that graduates who regularly encountered students from different backgrounds in college were twice as likely as others to believe their degree was worth the cost and more likely to be engaged employees (Marken 2015). Collaboration in diverse groups in the professional workplace—only possible when colleges and universities produce graduates from a variety of backgrounds—has been proven to increase innovation, research quality, and financial performance (Phillips 2014; Hunt et al. 2018; Lorenzo et al. 2018; Mayer, Warr, and Zhao 2017).

Despite this growing understanding, opportunity for low-income students at top institutions has remained stagnant. For instance, at the approximately 290 institutions that boast six-year graduation rates above 70 percent—the ATI-eligible sector—low-income students still make up just over 20 percent of all students enrolled, according to publicly reported data between 2012 and 2016. That compares with nearly 40 percent at institutions with lower graduation rates.

Several examples of institutional excellence, however, demonstrate that change is possible. For instance, some public ATI-member universities such as those in the University of California System and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and private colleges such as Amherst College and Spelman College, have outperformed their peers in enrolling lower-income students. ATI’s theory of change is that colleges can learn from these examples, and that through collective learning founded on a shared commitment to prioritizing socioeconomic diversity, institutions can achieve more together than they could on their own. As demonstrated below, ATI members have engaged in practices that aim to achieve not just student diversity but also equitable educational outcomes.

Pursuing Diversity and Equity Alongside Excellence

Over the last two years, Aspen and Ithaka S+R have conducted research and convened leaders and practitioners to better understand promising strategies for enrolling and supporting lower-income students at top colleges. Three early themes have emerged: leadership in finance, broader outreach, and educational innovation.

Leadership in finance: The success of institutions’ diversity and equity strategies often rests on the extent to which leaders prioritize investing in need-based financial aid. Ivy League institutions and other colleges with large endowments, as well as institutions with less wealth, have demonstrated that scaled investment is possible.

ATI studied five institutions that allocated substantial resources to need-based financial aid over a sustained period. The report cited five important financial allocation strategies (Kurzweil and Brown 2017):

  • reallocating funds to need-based aid, away from merit-only aid
  • allocating one-time grants and end-of-year surpluses to need-based aid
  • finding savings in noninstructional expenses
  • raising funds through means such as enrollment growth and fundraising
  • directing endowment spending to need- based aid

Using many of these strategies, Franklin & Marshall College nearly tripled the share of low-income students in its incoming class from 2008 to 2016 (Kurzweil and Brown 2017). Despite its relatively modest endowment, Franklin & Marshall committed to meeting students’ full financial need, gradually shifting nearly all financial aid funding to need-based aid and effectively tripling its need-based aid budget. The college drew from multiple resource streams, including new tuition and fundraising revenues, merit-only aid, year-end budgetary surpluses, and capital projects.

Leadership is essential to achieving high levels of need-based aid. At Franklin & Marshall and many other ATI-member institutions, financial allocation to need-based aid flowed from a long-term vision, set by the board of trustees and the president, to shift not just resources but also campus culture. These investments were not based on socioeconomic diversity as the end goal but rather as a means to achieving excellence—evidenced at Franklin & Marshall by high graduation rates, strong GPAs across income levels, and improved classroom culture.

Broader outreach: Investments in affordability alone may not guarantee equitable opportunity for lower-income students. Hoxby and Avery’s 2013 research, which identified a substantial pool of untapped talent, was published eight years after many selective institutions advertised zero-cost policies for students from the lowest-income backgrounds. The fact that low-income students remain underrepresented at these institutions, despite the removal of financial barriers, suggests that current outreach strategies are insufficient.

For instance, although many selective institutions employ initiatives like early outreach and cohort programming, summer institutes, and fly-in experiences, a recent study by Jaquette and Salazar (2018) indicates that the most basic recruitment activity, the high school visit, fails to reach lower-income students. The study analyzed websites of 140 public research and top private colleges and universities and found that, though the institutions expressed a commitment to including students from a diversity of backgrounds, they also demonstrated a bias toward schools that primarily serve affluent white students. During the recruitment process, the colleges and universities sent representatives to visit these schools more often than schools serving lower-income students.

These findings are consistent with the fact that most college-going students from high-poverty high schools attend community colleges. ATI research showed that transfer students made up only 18 percent of new student enrollments at ATI-member institutions, compared with 32 percent at all four-year institutions (LaViolet et al. 2018).

ATI-member institutions are taking concrete actions to enroll more students from lower-income backgrounds. For example, Emory University sets an expectation that at least 20 percent of admissions staff visits are to schools and community-based organizations that serve lower-income communities. Combined with a commitment to need-based financial aid, this policy has resulted in an above-average proportion of lower-income students attending Emory compared with other private colleges with high graduation rates.

At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), one of the most selective public institutions in the nation, community college transfer students make up more than 33 percent of the undergraduate population. UCLA dedicates significant resources to partnerships with targeted community colleges as well as support for transfer students once they enroll. The result: high enrollment levels of students receiving Pell Grants relative to
UCLA’s peers.

Private institutions have also seen success in investing in community college pipelines. Smith College enrolls about thirty new nontraditional transfer students each year through its Ada Comstock Scholars Program. Ada Comstock Scholars include military veterans, parents, students who work full time, and students who are returning to college after gaps in their studies. Smith cultivates an inclusive environment for nontraditional students by pairing supports (such as family housing, a study lounge, and dedicated advisors) with a campus community that is considerate of transfer students’ needs.

Educational innovation: Leaders who successfully advance diversity and equity include equitable access to learning opportunities among their priorities. Highly selective colleges have for many decades engaged in practices designed for upper-income students. As a result, the structure of educational opportunities both in and out of the classroom may not support lower-income students. For example, conditions for participating in study abroad programs and cocurricular activities may not consider lower-income students’ need to maintain jobs or take care of family. Colleges may assume that students who are interviewing for and participating in internships can afford to travel, purchase professional clothes, and forgo a salary. Many ATI-member schools are bridging such gaps by providing lower-income students additional financial support.

Ongoing research and reflection at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) offer a promising example of how colleges and universities can diversify their student bodies while shaping institutional cultures to ensure more equitable educational outcomes. WPI ranks in the top 7 percent among highly selective private colleges in promoting social mobility (Chetty et al. 2017). This success may stem from WPI’s requirement that all students participate for multiple years in a high-impact educational practice: team-oriented, project-based learning (Kuh 2008). WPI is implementing and assessing an asset-based approach to project-based learning, with the goal of developing “a culture and environment that can identify, appreciate, and utilize the strengths of working-class students, students of color, and other identity groups more equitably and effectively on team-based projects” (Pfeifer et al., forthcoming). Before project-based work begins, students “map” the assets they can contribute. Team members share their individual asset maps and then develop one for the team. Midway through the project, the team assesses whether it is equitably accessing the assets of each member and then develops an action plan to build on successes and overcome challenges. Early results suggest that individual asset mapping has increased the confidence of students from diverse backgrounds and that team-based asset mapping can help overcome stereotypes within teams.

The intentional work among ATI members in these three areas—leadership in finance, broader outreach, and educational innovation—provides concrete examples of how institutions with the highest graduation rates can enroll, educate, and graduate many more talented students from low-income backgrounds. It is efforts like these across member institutions that have contributed to the enrollment of 7,291 more lower-income students during ATI’s first two years. As ATI members continue to innovate and learn from each other, we are confident that we can build on this early progress, reach our “fifty thousand by 2025” goal, and support our commitment to achieving excellence.


Chetty, Raj, John N. Friedman, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner, and Danny Yagan. 2017. Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility. The Equality of Opportunity Project. https://opportunityinsights.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/coll_mrc_paper.pdf.

Gurin, Patricia, Eric L. Dey, Sylvia Hurtado, and Gerald Gurin. 2002. “Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes.” Harvard Educational Review 72 (3): 330–67.

Hoxby, Caroline M., and Christopher Avery. 2013. The Missing One-Offs: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/2013a_hoxby.pdf.

Hunt, Vivian, Lareina Yee, Sara Prince, and Sundiatu Dixon-Fyle. 2018. Delivering Through Diversity. New York: McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/delivering-through-diversity.

Jaquette, Ozan, and Karina Salazar. 2018. “Colleges Recruit at Richer, Whiter High Schools.” New York Times, April 13. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/04/13/opinion/college-recruitment-rich-white.html.

Jenkins, Davis, and John Fink. 2016. Tracking Transfer: New Measures of Institutional Effectiveness in Helping Community College Students Attain Bachelor’s Degrees. New York: Community College Research Center; The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program; National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kurzweil, Martin, and Jessie Brown. 2017. Funding Socioeconomic Diversity at High-Performing Colleges and Universities. New York: American Talent Initiative. http://www.sr.ithaka.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/ATI-Funding-Socioeconomic-Diversity-02152017.pdf.

LaViolet, Tania, Benjamin Fresquez, McKenzie Maxson, and Joshua Wyner. 2018. The Talent Blind Spot: The Case for Increasing Community College Transfer to High Graduation Rate Institutions. Washington, DC: American Talent Initiative. https://americantalentinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Aspen-ATI_Vol.1_The-Case_07112018.pdf.

Lorenzo, Rocío, Nicole Voigt, Miki Tsusaka, Matt Krentz, and Katie Abouzahr. 2018. “How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation.” Boston Consulting Group, January 23. https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation.aspx.

Marken, Stephanie. 2015. “Graduates Exposed to Diversity Believe Degree More Valuable.” Gallup, October 28. https://news.gallup.com/poll/186257/graduates-exposed-diversity-believe-degree-valuable.aspx.

Mayer, Roger C., Richard S. Warr, and Jing Zhao. 2017. “Do Pro-Diversity Policies Improve Corporate Innovation?” Financial Management 47 (3).

National Center for Education Statistics. 2017. Digest of Education Statistics, Table 302.30. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_302.30.asp.

Pfeifer, Geoff, Elisabeth Stoddard, Emily Bigwood, and Alyssa Grant. Forthcoming. Bias, Stereotyping, and Project-Based Learning: Strategies for Transforming Project Teams and University Cultures to Value Working-Class Students’ Experiences and Assets. Washington, DC: American Talent Initiative.

Phillips, Katherine W. 2014. “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.” Scientific American, October 1. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/.

Pisacreta, E. D., Emily Schwartz, and Martin Kurzweil. 2018. A 2018 Report on the Progress of the American Talent Initiative in Its First Two Years. New York: American Talent Initiative. https://doi.org/10.18665/sr.310775.

Wells, Amy Stuart, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo. 2016. How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students. New York: The Century Foundation. https://tcf.org/content/report/how-racially-diverse-schools-and-classrooms-can-benefit-all-students/.

Wyner, Joshua S. 2014. What Excellent Community Colleges Do: Preparing All Students for Success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Tania LaViolet is Associate Director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, and Joshua S. Wyner is Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’ College Excellence Program and Vice President of the Aspen Institute.

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