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Dartmouth Works to Boost Student Socioeconomic Diversity

  • Emily Lacroix, center, of Canaan, laughs with fellow students (from left) Silpa Raju of Barrington, Ill., Graham Churchill of Amherst, Mass., and Ivan Hess of San Diego, Calif., in Raju’s dorm room last week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Emily Lacroix, center, of Canaan, laughs with fellow students (from left) Silpa Raju of Barrington, Ill., Graham Churchill of Amherst, Mass., and Ivan Hess of San Diego, Calif., in Raju’s dorm room last week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Emily Lacroix, center, of Canaan, laughs with fellow students (from left) Silpa Raju of Barrington, Ill., Graham Churchill of Amherst, Mass., and Ivan Hess of San Diego, Calif., in Raju’s dorm room last week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Hanover — In the spring of her freshman year at Dartmouth College, Emily Lacroix volunteered to tutor high school students at her alma mater for an SAT prep course.

Lacroix, a Canaan resident, is a 2011 graduate of Mascoma Valley Regional High School — a school that, while not as wealthy as neighboring Hanover High, provided Lacroix with a solid education.

But when she volunteered for the Dartmouth-run SAT prep program, she discovered that perceptions of Mascoma were different from her own.

“It was very weird because (the program organizers) described it as SAT prep for underprivileged kids,” said Lacroix, who just finished her sophomore year at Dartmouth. “I never felt that way.”

Lacroix considers herself middle class. Her mother is a registered nurse at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and her stepfather is an X-ray technologist there. Being at Dartmouth, however, has changed her perceptions of where she falls along the economic spectrum. She is surprised to meet other students who have never had a job before, never needed to earn money for themselves. Lacroix holds down two jobs on campus and relies on financial aid to pay for her education.

“You do meet people and it is mind-blowing to me that they have no concept that you need to be on a budget,” she said.

The issue of diversity has received a great deal of attention at Dartmouth lately, but the debates are often couched in terms of ethnicity or gender. The socioeconomic circumstances of students tends to receive less attention, largely because it is less visible.

Dartmouth touts the gains it has made in achieving ethnic diversity. Racial minorities accounted for just 11 percent of the class of 1976, for example. By 2012, the proportion of undergraduates who identified as minorities was 35 percent.

Student protests at Dartmouth this spring have drawn attention to sexual assault, racism and other attitudes of intolerance toward that more diverse population at the college. And a case before the U.S. Supreme Court has highlighted the ongoing debate in higher education over race-based affirmative action in admission decisions.

Meanwhile, there is a growing call to attract more poor students to campus. Researchers have recently challenged elite institutions such as Dartmouth to do more to attract low-income, high-achieving students who are otherwise hidden in places where college recruiters don’t visit.

“Diversity among all dimensions is a very high priority for me,” said Phil Hanlon, who will be installed as Dartmouth’s 18th president tomorrow. “For various reasons, the intellectual case for diversity is at this point indisputable. There is rigorous social science research proving that people from diverse background perspectives, including socioeconomic diversity, are better at crafting approaches to difficult problems.”

Measuring Socioeconomic Diversity

Anyone attending today’s commencement ceremonies at Dartmouth will hear from a man, Geoffrey Canada, who has worked to raise high school and college graduation rates among socioeconomically disadvantaged students in Harlem.

But the term “socioeconomically disadvantaged” is a broad one carrying many meanings. Such students can hail from a range of backgrounds. They may come from rural as well as urban settings. Perhaps a student went to a poor high school, lived in a single-parent household or fell below a certain income threshold.

One consistent measure at colleges is the proportion of students receiving federal Pell Grants, given to low- and moderate-income students.

Using that yardstick, a New York Times analysis recently found broad variation among elite colleges and universities in how aggressively they recruit disadvantaged students.

Nationally, 35 percent of undergraduates at four-year state colleges or private, nonprofit colleges received Pell Grants in 2010-11, the Times analysis found.

Among the Ivies, however, the numbers are lower.

For that same year, Dartmouth had just 16 percent of its undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, ranking it the second highest among the “ Ancient Eight.” Cornell University set the bar at 17 percent, and Harvard was the lowest with 11 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Dartmouth’s internal records show slightly lower numbers, with 15 percent of students receiving Pell Grants in 2010-11, according to Maria Laskaris, dean of admissions and financial aid. That has since declined. For the past two years, 13 to 14 percent of Dartmouth students have been Pell recipients, Laskaris said.

Dartmouth has a “need-blind” admissions process, which means the financial circumstances of students are not considered in decisions to accept them.

The work of building a diverse student body really happens in recruiting, Laskaris said. And despite the school’s efforts to recruit in poor school districts and deploy 8,000 alumni volunteers throughout the nation to find promising students, Dartmouth has had a difficult time tapping what researchers Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery have called the “hidden supply of high-achieving, low-income students.”

Dartmouth and other elite institutions offer comparatively generous financial aid to low-income students, so generous in fact that students often end up paying less than they would at a less competitive school. The problem, academics say, is persuading those low-income students to apply.

In a paper presented in March, Hoxby, of Stanford University, and Avery, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, argued that many high-achieving, low-income students never consider applying to an elite school.

Part of the issue is that many colleges are “searching under the lamppost,” Hoxby and Avery said. That is, they are looking for low-income students where the college is located rather than going farther afield and finding students where they live.

It’s one thing to send a recruiter to schools in New York City, where there is a high concentration of talent. But it is quite another to find these children of promise in suburban and rural areas.

“A challenge for all of us, not just at Dartmouth but most of the schools in our peer group, is that many of the bright and talented students that we seek from underresourced schools and communities are not in metropolitan or suburban areas,” Laskaris said. “They might be in the small towns or out-of-the-way places. So how do we develop a recruitment strategy that will allow us to reach into schools and communities that maybe aren’t necessarily on the beaten path?”

Discovering Dartmouth

Jennifer McGrew had never heard of Dartmouth before she began her college search.

She graduated second in her high school class in Lubbock, a city of 236,000 people in northwestern Texas. She achieved high academic marks despite coming from a low-income family, having an absent father and a mother who died when she was just 14 years old.

Her high school guidance counselors pushed her to apply to top-notch schools, including the Ivies. She began researching, saw that Dartmouth was the smallest of the Ancient Eight, and decided to apply.

She had never met a Dartmouth recruiter. She did not know anyone who went to Dartmouth. None of her six older siblings nor any of her classmates had heard of Dartmouth.

She may very well have gone to an in-state school, such as Texas Tech, had her guidance counselors not pushed her to aim high.

“They’re like mothers to me,” McGrew, now 22, said one recent afternoon, only days from receiving her Dartmouth diploma. “They said, ‘You’re smart. You’ve got good test scores. You can do this.’ ”

She got into each of the 13 colleges to which she applied. But when she received her financial aid package from Dartmouth, which promised to cover everything except some living expenses, the school shot to the top of her list.

Her first visit to campus was in the spring of her senior year in high school for “Dimensions,” a weekend program for prospective students. The school paid for her flight to New Hampshire, picked her up at the airport and treated her to a fun weekend.

“They paid for everything,” she said. “I got a free hoodie, free sweatpants. I was like, ‘I’m going to Dartmouth.’ ”

The years since have been difficult, at times. She works 40 hours a week between two campus jobs, in dining services and the Collis student center, to pay for living expenses. Her work commitments have interfered with academics. A professor once told her that she wasn’t dedicating enough time to her studies and needed to drop one of her jobs. She refused the advice and instead switched majors, from neuroscience to history, which she has found easier to manage with her work schedule.

Many of her other classmates don’t face these financial pressures. She also said she felt less prepared for the rigorous curriculum than other Dartmouth students who’d gone to wealthier high schools.

“It seemed like I was starting at the bottom of Mount Everest and the rest of the class was starting in the middle of Mount Everest,” she said.

There have been other challenges. McGrew, who is African American, said she has experienced racism on campus and wrote about it in a January column published in the student newspaper, The Dartmouth.

But the socioeconomic differences between herself and other students have had a profound impact on her college experience. She’s “not that big into the party scene,” but nevertheless has missed social opportunities because she works late shifts at Collis on the weekends. She also was forced to drop gospel choir because rehearsals conflicted with her work schedule.

Despite these challenges, McGrew managed to finish her education in four years. She has no regrets.

“I like the person I am,” she said. “And I wouldn’t be this exact person if I didn’t come to Dartmouth.”

Cultivating a
College-Going Culture

Beyond the recruiting that happens through the admissions office, Dartmouth has also established programs aimed at digging deeper to reach low-income students with promise.

One of those efforts is the Summer Enrichment at Dartmouth program, which sends Dartmouth student mentors into a handful of underresourced high schools to work with students who have demonstrated potential.

The Dartmouth students do this work over 10 weeks during a term that they are required by the college to take off. During that period, they might tutor the high school students, help them with their studies at home or help them handle any other issues that may be conflicting with their school work, said Jay Davis, the program’s director.

Dartmouth works with individual schools to identify these students, and maintains the partnership over three years, continuing to mentor the students throughout their high school experience. This year, five urban and rural high schools, including one in Raymond, N.H., are involved in the program.

Since 2001, 125 high school students have graduated from the program. Not all decide to come to Dartmouth. Indeed, most do not, with only five choosing to enroll at the college, Davis said. But a majority attend some college, Davis said. And that is the goal.

“We’re trying to help these schools change the college-going nature of what they’re doing,” he said.

Dartmouth also has a program to support students who are the first in their families to go to college. The program offers an eight-day pre-orientation program and provides ongoing support throughout the student’s first year on campus. It provides some academic help, such as tutoring in how to take notes or participate in class discussions, and teaches them strategies for using the college’s resources, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Davis, a 1990 Dartmouth alumnus, said initiatives like this demonstrate that the college is making a genuine effort to address the socioeconomic hurdles that prevent many promising students from realizing their college dream.

“Dartmouth has made a much stronger effort to increase the number of its students from underprivileged populations,” Davis said. “It’s the socioeconomic piece that often goes hidden and can be a really important part of what Dartmouth’s diversity can be.”

A Diverse
Academic Experience

Financial aid is a critical component to enabling low and middle-income students to attend Dartmouth. But many families aren’t aware of the financial help that is available to them when they see a sticker price of $58,000 a year for tuition, room, board and fees.

“The challenge is the families who look at the price tag, the cost of attendance per year … and just think, ‘There’s no way my family can afford that,’ ” Laskaris said. “And they don’t take the step of going further, to ask the questions about financial aid to understand we are affordable.”

Dartmouth handed out more than $80 million in scholarships in 2011-12, and 54 percent of all students receive some kind of financial aid, according to the school’s financial aid office. The average scholarship amount was $35,249.

The students who choose to go to Dartmouth often have visited or had some personal interaction with the school, Laskaris said. Perhaps they know a graduate or were approached by a recruiter. Campus visits are “extraordinarily (influential) to student decisions to apply,” she said. But low-income students are less likely to have the money or time to make the trip.

“A large part of our outreach effort is to help those students who don’t have the resources to plan a visit to campus in the summer before their senior year,” she said.

The opportunity to visit Dartmouth obviously is much easier for students, regardless of their financial means, who live near the college.

David Ballou, 17, is wrapping up his junior year at South Royalton School. He has grown up with Dartmouth College as a presence in his life, regularly attending football, baseball and hockey games. He is an honors student and plans to apply for admission to Dartmouth. His family could never afford to pay close to $60,000 a year for college, but he is hopeful that financial aid would cover most of his costs.

“My family is not rich,” Ballou said. “But that’s another thing I like about (Dartmouth): You don’t have to be rich to go there.”

Callan George, also of South Royalton, just finished her first year at Dartmouth. George’s family is middle-class but by no means wealthy, she said. Her father is a financial adviser and mother works at South Royalton School. She received a large financial aid package that has allowed her to pay for college.

After she arrived on campus, she said her views of where she fell along the socioeconomic spectrum began to change.

“I have never before experienced a world where there was a lot of affluence around me,” she said. “It did readjust my perception of things.”

There was no single moment when this realization occurred, she said. It was teased out in the minor references, the details her friends included in stories. For example, she said she “had no idea what J.Crew was” before going to Dartmouth.

For the first time, George said, she felt like a minority. But that has been good for her, she said. Uncomfortable at times, but educational.

“It’s allowed a lot of personal growth,” she said. “It’s opened my eyes to what the world can be like.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.