Choosing Access: Mid-Market Private Colleges Enrolling Low-Income Students

Charles Edmonds, University of Pennsylvania


The primary aim of this research project is to better understand the commitment of mid-market private not-for-profit institutions to enrolling low-income students in the face of higher education market pressures. Too many private institutions face a devil’s dilemma. They need to pursue revenue, primarily from students who can pay tuition, and they have missions to educate students from all economic strata. Given today’s intense market and financial pressure, now amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, it is critical to understand the factors influencing, and practices being deployed, by some mid-market private institutions to significantly and successfully educate low-income students. As a segment, private mid-market institutions are vulnerable to changes in market demand, they pursue strategies that seek to improve prestige and market position, and are highly dependent on stable and increasing tuition revenue (Tough, 2019). Low-income students, by definition, have limited means to pay and for those underprepared may require additional institutional resources and supports. While all institutions address these challenges, a handful have made a more significant commitment to enrolling low-income students at rates much higher than their peers. This research project of mid-market private colleges pursues three research questions: Why do some mid-market private not-for-profit colleges enroll low-income (Pell eligible) students at rates 1.5 – 2 times their peers despite this practice being counter to market forces? What practices and strategies are employed by these institutions to enroll low-income students? And what are the most significant features of these institutions that distinguish them from their peers when it comes to enrolling low-income students? Given that the number of institutions making significant headway educating sizeable numbers of low-income students is relatively small and that they are clearly doing things differently from their peers, this research will adopt a comparative case study approach. Utilizing a matched-pair method of analysis (four institutions) will provide rich detail of multiple research sites around this phenomenon. Some mid-tier private not-for-profit colleges have made a conscious choice to outperform their market peers when it comes to enrolling low-income students. Higher education collectively needs to do more to increase access for low-income students, and this comparative case study of four private not-for-profit colleges will evidence the important work already taking place as well as the work that lies ahead.

Subject Area

Higher education|Higher Education Administration|Educational administration

Recommended Citation

Edmonds, Charles, "Choosing Access: Mid-Market Private Colleges Enrolling Low-Income Students" (2021). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI28645426.