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Spring 2018 Issue 6 (May 11, 2018)

Admissions & Financial Aid Committee Changes Middle-Income Standard

May 16, 2018
By Ross Matican '20, News Editor

The Admissions and Financial Aid Committee (AFAC) has increased the “middle income” range in order to track national median income growth, according to recently approved minutes from a February 19, 2018 College Council Meeting. AFAC now defines middle income as annual household income between $42,000 and $170,000, and had previously defined middle income between $40,000 and $160,000. The new definition was approved without dissent.

“The whole goal of reexamining the definition was to ensure that we would be able to generate data and keep good, consistent records over time so we can track how we are doing with respect to socioeconomic diversity goals,” said Matt Whited, 2017-18 AFAC Chair and Associate Professor of Chemistry.

According to the February 19 College Council minutes, AFAC uses the Pew Research Center’s calculation of national median income in defining the middle income range for student financial aid. Pew defines “middle-income households” as “those with an income that is two-thirds to double the U.S. median household income,” and uses regional price levels to adjust for cost-of-living differences.

“Pew recalculated the middle-income range last year as part of a larger report on the middle class in the United States, revealing a greater than 6 percent increase in national median incomes,” added Whited. “Spurred by their report, we decided that it was time to revisit our definition, and we ultimately decided to recommend that both the lower and upper ends of the middle-income range should grow—and decrease—with the national median income, as reported by Pew.”  

According to the college’s 2012 strategic plan, “student enrollment outcomes measures (e.g., the size of the average aid award; the percentage of our student body receiving aid; and the income distribution of our student body) will serve as ‘guardrails’ to enable us to ensure that our results are consistent with our goals.”

The Feb. 19 College Council minutes show that the college has a 30% guardrail for middle-income student enrollment.

“The metrics and guardrails are things we track for each class after admission, not as a mechanism for guiding the admissions process, so if we start seeing the number dip farther toward or even below 30%, it will trigger a conversation both on AFAC and at the College in general about what we can do to maintain representation from all socioeconomic backgrounds,” added Whited.

According to AFAC Student-at-Large Margot Radding ’18, “that original middle-income threshold was made five years ago by a working group because a 20-year analysis of our admissions trends found that there was a huge drop in middle-income students—it dropped by between 15 and 20%, versus low-income, which was fluctuating between four and six percent.”

According to Professor of Chemistry Daniela Kohen, who was part of the working group that created the 30% middle-income guardrail for the college’s 2012 strategic plan, “the origin was we started to notice that Carleton students were beginning to look bimodal. It started to be a lot of very high-income and a fair number of very low-income [students], but the number of people in the middle had started to decline.” In statistics, a bimodal distribution has two peaks.

“Without paying much attention, we were spending our resources inviting and offering financial aid to students that don’t have any money, and then we were sort of undercutting the chances of the people in the middle,” Kohen continued. “We didn’t want to have a school where we had two different groups of people that, among other problems, could not talk to each other. There was nobody that could bridge the gap and had experiences that were common to both sides.”

“I think what’s a shame is [that] it always seems like an either-or, as if we’re prioritizing middle-income above low-income, which is absolutely not the case at all,” said Radding. “What is the case, however, is because of that 15 to 20% drop in middle-income [student enrollment], what we’re finding is this barbell effect, where we have low-income students and high-income students, and that leaves the middle-income [student population] empty. So that’s one reason why we’re attacking this.”

“In terms of other schools, I think Carleton is unique in having a metric devoted to measuring middle-income students,” said Director of Student Financial Services (SFS) Rodney Oto. “Other schools may be aware of the concerns of middle-income families, but Carleton may be the only one that has a minimal objective that we explicitly state.”

“In general, incomes in the lower- and middle-income groups have not kept pace with Carleton’s tuition increases making it a serious barrier to access and retention,” Oto continued.

“It would be really easy for us to lean heavily on people that make $160,000 because that is in that middle-income range, so what I’ve proposed is a fourth metric where we have the median of the middle [income range] and how that changes across time,” said Radding.

“My understanding based on recent classes is that we shoot for a max in the middle of the middle-income range, with matriculants distributed on both sides.  Any times we see anomalies, either based on a single data set or trends, that leads to deeper discussion,” Whited added on the 30% middle income guardrail.

According to the SFS website, Carleton’s 2018-19 comprehensive fee, which includes the costs of tuition, the student activity fee and room and board, is $68,844, a $2,430 increase from this year’s $66,414 comprehensive fee. The average financial aid award for the class of 2021 was $48,099, and within that, the average grant from the college—which does not need to be repaid—was $38,893. Approximately 52% of the class of 2021 received need-based grants and scholarships. “We do not have any income data on students who do not apply for financial aid,” said Whited.

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