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Kalamazoo College among best in nation at enrolling (and graduating) low-income students

Kalamazoo College

An analysis by the New York Times ranks Kalamazoo College 12th in the nation among elite colleges that enroll a large percentage of PELL-grant eligible students.

The eligibility for PELL grants is a strong marker for low-income status, since many students in families above the poverty level are not eligible for the grants.

Kalamazoo College President Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran says the number of students receiving PELL grants more than doubled since 2005, when her administration began focusing on improving the economic diversity of its student body.  About 21% of Kalamazoo College students receive PELL grants.

Wilson-Oyelaran says as a matter of social justice, elite colleges should open their doors as much as possible to qualified low-income students.

"But I think we would be dishonest if we began by saying we're doing this because it's good for the nation," says Wilson-Oyelaran.  "We're doing it because we think it's good for education."

She says Kalamazoo College has achieved greater economic diversity without the  benefit of the large endowments of rivals like Harvard, which can offer some of its very low-income students the opportunity to graduate with zero debt.

Wilson-Oyelaran says colleges hoping to increase their number of lower-income students have to be creative - going beyond the traditional recruitment at high schools.

Kalamazoo College  forms relationships with groups like College Possible, MOSTE, and Heart of Los Angeles, that focus on helping inner-city, low-income, and minority high school students achieve success in school.

Kalamazoo College graduates themselves also do some of the outreach - since many take two or three-year community service jobs after they graduate, before moving on to their chosen careers.

Wilson-Oyelaran says it's important to do more than recruit. 

A college also has to retain the students, and keep them on track to graduating on time, by giving them extra resources.

She says many of these students are the first in their families to attend college, so they may not know what their more affluent peers know - like the importance of career internships, and study abroad programs.

"When they're ready to graduate, do they have clothes to go to a job interview?  That's a question we might not have asked five years ago."

Wilson-Oyelaran says the college holds a "First Generation Brunch," on move-in day every year.  That puts all the students who are the first in their families to attend college in one room.

"When you see grandparents, and little siblings, come - this is amazing in the life of these families, so it's very inspirational."

Kalamazoo College will soon begin a new fundraising campaign - with one of the priorities to increase scholarships for students.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.