Running on the "Status Treadmill"?
Ciarimboli, Erin Beth
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Despite efforts to combat rising college costs via significant federal, state, and institutional investments in student financial aid, enrollment in higher education remains woefully stratified by family income. In recent years, critics have decried the most wealthy and selective colleges for failing to utilize their abundant endowment wealth to recruit, enroll, and retain a greater number of low-income students, particularly as sticker prices continue to rise at rates higher than inflation. Many of the wealthiest private institutions—with endowments well over $500 million—have Pell Grant enrollments below 20%, compared to the 35% of students nationally receiving Pell. In response to these concerns of access, affordability, and the practice of so-called “endowment hoarding,” Congress launched two inquiries targeting wealthy colleges in 2008 and 2016. The present study explores the nexus of these two requests, focusing on the role of institutional endowments in promoting access to wealthy, private colleges and universities. Two specific research questions framed this analysis. First, how do endowment spending, priorities, and policies differ among private colleges with over $1 billion in institutional assets, given multiple missions and institutional types? Second, how do these schools’ endowments contribute to institutional financial aid policy and spending, and ultimately, low-income student access? Using content analysis, I systematically analyzed a sample of 30 universities’ responses to the Congressional inquiries in both 2008 and 2016. Findings suggest significant heterogeneity in institutional spending and priorities, multiple definitions of student financial need and subsequent approaches to distributing financial aid, and consequently, differential roles of endowments in supporting institutional needs. While many argue for a governmental role in imposing greater regulatory controls over endowment spending, advocates must be aware of the risks of imposing one-size-fits-all policy solutions in attempts to compel rich private institutions to spend more of their endowment resources. I conclude by offering several implications for policymakers seeking to contain college costs and encourage greater endowment spending, as well as for practitioners attempting to increase low-income student enrollment while also ensuring long-term endowment sustainability.