By Ashley Browning

Browning is vice president for enrollment management at Hollins University.

In April of this year, an article in The Atlantic on the celebrity college admissions scandal proclaimed, “Elite colleges pay deep attention to the issue of enrollment management; the more elite the institution, the more likely it is to be racially and socioeconomically diverse.” However, a 2017 study led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, according to an article published this month by The New York Times Magazine, “undercut that consensus, showing that, in fact the opposite was true: The most selective colleges in America were the least socioeconomically diverse.” Chetty determined that children from parents who are “in the top one percent of income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quantile.” Another study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that just 14 percent of undergraduates at highly selective schools come from families who are in the lower 50 percent of income distribution.

The media’s emphasis on the alleged cheating by Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin to get their children into top schools, and the mixed efforts by those institutions to become more inclusive, is certainly understandable. Still, that focus leaves out the fact that many colleges and universities that are not among the elite, but nevertheless offer outstanding educational opportunities, are making significant strides in enrolling and graduating students who come from backgrounds that better reflect the current and future college-going population.

Increasingly, Virginia private colleges and universities are seizing the opportunity to create meaningful experiences for all students, regardless of their economic status. The Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia reports that 45 percent of all undergraduate students from the commonwealth’s private, non-profit colleges receive the Pell Grant, a federal program designed to help the neediest students pursue university study, as compared to 27 percent at four-year public institutions. At Hollins University, we are admitting and enrolling students with exceptional academic records and high school accomplishments, including those who have historically been disenfranchised by the educational elite: 37 percent of our first-year, first-time enrollees identify as students of color and/or Hispanic. What’s more, 36 percent of our first-year students this academic year are first-generation, meaning neither parent completed a bachelor’s degree. Our generous academic merit and need-based aid to current students augments the Pell Grant and Virginia’s Tuition Assistance Grant, and moves us toward realizing a crucial prerequisite for socioeconomic progress in the 21st century: educational access through affordability.

Launched just this year, our HU Connect program helps first-generation or low income students take full advantage of the college experience, and this support fosters a thriving campus community. Overall, three out of four Hollins students complete an internship before graduation; half of all students complete more than one. Almost half of our students enjoy an international experience before graduation. And, 95 percent of Hollins’ class of 2018 were employed or in graduate school within one year of graduation.

Affordability is certainly important when it comes to the accessibility of a private college or university, but choosing the right institution of higher learning must include something else. “Fit” is crucial: Where will the student find an academic program that provides them with internships and other real-world experiences that prepare them for life after college? Where will they learn about themselves and their capabilities? Where will they find support and challenge? Where will they be a part of a community that not only embraces difference but talks about it with intentionality?

I urge students and parents to leave behind those college guide rankings that imply you can only get an exceptional education at an elite school. Free yourselves from the conventional wisdom that quality options are attainable only if you can pay for them. You might just be surprised to discover that a Virginia private college education can offer a life-changing experience that doesn’t break the bank.

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