The idea is clear, simple, and generally agreed upon: Colleges need to do more when it comes to enrolling and graduating low-income students. If college degrees are “the great equalizer”—though some research has disputed that characterization—then expanding access to those degrees will help make society more equal. Are any colleges succeeding in doing that?

A new report from Third Way, a center-left think tank, tries to answer that question—and the results for many colleges are not pretty. One of the most common ways to understand how colleges are serving low-income students is by looking at how well they are helping students who are eligible to receive Pell Grants, or need-based federal grants for low-income students. Three-quarters of Pell Grant recipients come from families that make less than $40,000 a year.

The report finds that fewer than half of first-time, full-time Pell students (meaning students who are attending college for the first time, not transfer or return students, who are a slightly different population) graduate at the institution they started at within six years. By contrast, those who do not receive a Pell Grant are doing much better, and nationally are 18 percent more likely to graduate within that time period. This report represents some of the first significant analysis done on Pell-recipient graduation rates, as the federal government had not made these data available until last fall.

But the report found that one system stands out: Schools in the University of California system are doing significantly better than other four-year colleges and universities in the country when it comes to enrolling low-income students and seeing them across the finish line. Of the public and private nonprofit schools with a higher-than-average Pell-awardee enrollment rate (the schools this study examined), the UCs occupy five of the top 10 slots in terms of graduating students. Among only public institutions, they are the top seven.


Schools With High Pell-Awardee Enrollment and Graduation Rates

Colleges in the UC system had five of the top 10 graduation rates among public and private nonprofit institutions with above-average Pell Grant enrollees. (Data: Third Way / IPEDS)
The UCs also stand out among similarly positioned public institutions with more Pell students than average. (Data: Third Way / IPEDS)

“Every single time we do these outcome measures, the UC system stands out,” Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, who leads the social policy and politics program at Third Way, told me. A 2016 report from Third Way on outcomes for students at public colleges similarly found that colleges in the UC system fared better than their peers.

Why is that? The state money available for higher education makes a big difference—and the UCs have remained among the better-funded colleges in the country, as institutions in other states have seen sharp cuts. They devote a good portion of that funding to getting low-income students onto campus in the first place. In recent years, colleges have placed increased emphasis on outreach to low-income communities to diversify the socioeconomic makeup of their student body, including sending recruiters to schools they haven’t traditionally frequented and helping with college counseling.

The UCs do those things, and a bit more. For starters, they provide academic preparation for high-school students at underserved schools to ensure that they meet the requirements to attend the colleges, and hold academic-enrichment programs in the summer. When students are seniors, the UCs help them with their applications and financial aid. That early outreach is crucial for students, Yvette Gullatt, a vice provost of the university system, told me, because it allows them to build a relationship with the university—perhaps making it more likely that they will apply. More than 100,000 students are enrolled in these programs, according to Gullatt.

Representatives from the UCs also go to local high schools and churches to demystify college, which can be an important step. Applying for college can be daunting, especially if one is not from a wealthy family—the sticker price alone is enough to dissuade many students from applying—or if one is the first in the family to attempt to get a postsecondary education. “We explain to them that a family with an income of $80,000 or below is not going to pay tuition at the University of California,” Gullatt said. “That often unlocks the door for families who realize that UC is within their reach financially as well as academically.”

Just as important as getting students to campus, however, is supporting them while they’re there. As Janet Napolitano, the system’s chancellor, told me, “A student needs to have access to whatever support they need in order to help them succeed.” The idea isn’t novel, but when executed properly, the results are clear. According to the Third Way report, the University of California at Los Angeles has an 88 percent Pell-student graduation rate; the University of California at San Diego is at 85 percent, as is the University of California at Irvine. Those numbers are roughly on par with the graduation rates for non-Pell recipients.

Similarly, last year, The New York Times reported that the UCs were among the top colleges in propelling students to higher income brackets. According to data released by the Equal Opportunity Project, UCLA enrolled the most low- and middle-income students among elite colleges. And the University of California at Irvine was fourth among colleges that propelled students from the bottom fifth of the income distribution to the top three-fifths.

Though the UCs are making a concerted effort to enroll and retain low-income students, it is also worth noting that the schools’ efforts are buoyed by a healthy state economy. A recent paper found that labor markets are also a contributing factor in mobility.

“We know that it is possible to succeed with Pell students, which is why our policies must find ways to reward and scale up programs that have proven results with this population,” the report says. But several states have not had such success. In fact, according to Third Way, some states—including Wyoming, Colorado, Mississippi, and Lousiana—have few, if any, institutions that both enroll a high share of Pell students and serve them well. And as the trend of state disinvestment in higher education continues, there are fewer resources for ambitious efforts.