College life in Philly

Philly colleges doubled down on low-income students, then outperformed the nation

Says a Temple University VP of these students, who sometimes struggle just to get to college: “I’ll be damned if they come to Temple and drop the baton on the last leg.”


Freshman Qwajarik Sims can’t point out any specific difficulties from his first semester at Haverford College. Classes went well, he’s met a great group of friends and he’s really enjoyed the way Haverford hews to Quaker values by emphasizing that everyone is equal, meaning even faculty and administration are on the same level as students.

In some ways, his success is not surprising. Sims is bright and motivated. He even scored a White House invitation last summer to a “Beating the Odds Summit” and met Barack and Michelle Obama.   

But other factors suggest he’ll face challenges. He’s a first-generation college student from a low-income background who graduated from Philadelphia public schools. Sims has heard plenty of stories of how city kids like him find the college atmosphere more difficult than people from more privileged, suburban upbringings.  

“Sometimes you feel like you’re beneath them somehow,” he said. “I didn’t feel it as much because of my community (of friends at Haverford) but I know for a fact it happens.”     

The problem has existed for decades. Talented, low-income students are saddled with debt, and eventually are forced to drop out of college. But Philadelphia-area universities appear to be neutralizing those problems.

In 2015, for the first time ever, data was released to track the success of low-income students. It contained plenty of good news for students like Sims: Philadelphia-area institutions are taking in nearly 50 percent more of them as just a few years ago and are outpacing the national average when it comes to graduation rates for them.

How Philly colleges are educating low-income students

The most reliable way to gauge universities’ success at educating low-income students is through Pell Grants. They have been around since 1965. They are awarded to low- income students — the maximum value per year has been about $5,000 the last few years — and do not need to be repaid. Not every low-income college student gets a Pell grant, but Pell grant recipients always come from low-income backgrounds. Sims, for instance, has a Pell Grant and several scholarships to pay for his tuition at Haverford.   

Nobody accurately tracked the graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients until the Ed Trust did last fall. What they found was that these low-income students were generally having success at schools that had high graduation rates for the overall student body.

The data shows that low-income college students nationally are, on average, graduating at a rate just 5.7 percent below non-low-income students, and many at Philadelphia-area universities are doing even better. At Haverford, Villanova, Penn, Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore and St. Joseph’s, the gap between graduation rates of low-income students and everyone else is less than 5 percent.

Temple is doing the best of any area school at attracting and educating low-income students. Thirty-five percent of its student body consists of low-income students, and they graduate at a rate nearly identical to everyone else.    

Pell Grant chart
Ed Trust Pell Parternship Study


La Salle, Drexel and Penn State were the only major colleges in the Philly-area or heavily attended by Philly-area students that had graduation gaps between Pell recipients and non-Pell recipients worse than the national institutional average. Even less-renowned, smaller colleges in this area like Cabrini, Lincoln, Delaware Valley and Arcadia had smaller gaps in graduation rates between Pell recipients than might be expected. For Lincoln, the gap was about the national average at 5.8 percent, and Arcadia’s and Delaware Valley’s were even lower at 5.3 percent and 4.2 percent. Cabrini had a smaller gap than Penn State and Drexel. 

La Salle, Penn, Villanova, St. Joseph’s, Haverford, Penn State, Drexel, Bryn Mawr, Temple and Swarthmore have been taking on an increasing number of Pell Grant recipients. In 2008-09, according to data from the Department of Education, a total of 18,684 students with Pell Grants were enrolled at those schools. In 2013-14, the most recent year for data, 25,268 Pell Grant students were enrolled.

Temple had nearly 10,000 undergraduate students who were Pell Grant recipients in 2013-14. While area private universities have higher graduation rates, it has done the best at graduating these low-income students at the same rate as other students. Peter R. Jones, senior vice provost for undergraduate studies, credits a data-based intervention program the school started using a few years ago.

This program identifies students with certain risk factors that could make them more likely to drop out. The No. 1 risk factor they look at for first-semester freshmen, Jones said, are Pell Grants. Other risk factors might be long commutes to campus, kids or part-time jobs that take up more than 20 hours in a week.

The identified students meet with an advisor at least five times during their first semester on campus and learn about all the resources. Temple also gets information on the students’ grades and attendance six weeks into each semester so it can tell whether they’re struggling in a way they might not share with an advisor.    

We’re like the last leg of a relay race,” says Peter R. Jones, Temple’s senior vice provost for undergraduate studies. “Many of these students have struggled against he the odds in middle school and high school. I’ll be damned if they come to Temple and drop the baton on the last leg.”

Data programs like Temple’s have been introduced around the country, but it is still relatively cutting edge. Other schools in Philadelphia use more traditional means, such as summer bridge programs. Talented students from less privileged backgrounds are usually accepted to the programs, and they go through what amounts to a summer boot camp. Taahir Mundy, a freshman at La Salle who graduated from Parkway Center City High School, started his summer program three days after graduation. He took math and critical thinking courses and had daily assignments and weekly essays.

“That basically prepared me for college,” Mundy says.

Alexis Grandy enrolled in a similar summer program through Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit that prepares low-income, first generation college students, before her freshman year at Lafayette College. Now a junior, she’s been on the Dean’s List every semester.

How finances make a difference

Mundy, Grandy and Sims were all scholars with Philadelphia Futures. Thanks to grants, scholarships from Philadelphia Futures, financial aid packages and outside scholarships, they are paying little to nothing for their education. Plus, they got into top schools.

Qwajarik Sims

Qwajarik Sims

Philadelphia Futures

Haverford, Penn and Bryn Mawr can use their deep pockets to fund low-income students like them. But not every student can gain acceptance to those universities. Christina Santos, director of college retention and success at Philadelphia Futures, says the challenge for low-income students is to figure out how to get into the best school possible but also realize that school has to fit their financial needs.

“Low-income students aren’t always savvy enough to understand that a $20,000 a year scholarship isn’t going to cut it for them at a school that costs $40,000 a year,” she says. “I think that’s really challenging.”

Want some more? Explore other College life in Philly stories.

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