Only the relatively wealthiest students can afford to attend most public flagship institutions, according to a new report released last week by the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
The report found that only six of 50 state flagships meet an affordability benchmark for low-income students (see graphic, below).
Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at IHEP and a co-author of the report, said public institutions funded by taxpayers should better serve low-income students, a demographic that's growing in overall college enrollments. Flagship universities often have high graduation rates and good post-college outcomes for students, Voight said, making them a good vehicle for social mobility.
But flagships "are not following through on that promise," she said, because they aren't providing affordable, accessible education for low- and middle-income students. This results in some students taking out large loans, working long hours while attending school and facing difficulty covering basic needs such as food, all of which can lead to poorer outcomes for the students. Other students may opt for a less expensive college with fewer supports, or forgo college altogether.
The report created five profiles of students using nationally representative data. They include three dependent students who are low-income, middle-income and high-income; and two independent students, one with dependents and one without dependents.
To determine what each student could afford to pay, the report used the "Rule of 10" benchmark from the Lumina Foundation, which says that a family should be able to pay college costs by setting aside 10 percent of discretionary income for 10 years, with the student working 10 hours per week while enrolled.
Using these metrics, the profiled high-income student can afford to attend any state flagship in the country, with money left over. At six flagships, aid awarded to the high-income student could fully pay for the unmet need of the low-income student.
This is due to "poor aid prioritization," the report states.
"The decisions that leaders are making in terms of spending really comes down to prioritization of different values and different priorities," Voight said, adding that some schools may try to attract more high-income students to boost prestige, while others may target aid to increase equity.
The University of Alabama is a prime example of poor prioritization, according to the report. In the analysis, the low-income student has an annual unmet need of $20,000 to cover costs, while the need of the high-income student is exceeded by nearly $16,000.
"We are like many other institutions that are trying to find that right balance," said Kevin Whitaker, provost for academic affairs at the University of Alabama. "We are trying to provide scholarship programs for students, and I think we have a very robust scholarship program that benefits a lot of students."
Whitaker said the university has a spectrum of scholarships available to students, some of which consider financial need and some of which do not. He said a "buffet" of options is necessary because students are different. And Whitaker disagrees that scholarships should be targeted solely at students with financial need.
"There are students that, when they qualify for a merit scholarship, have worked very, very hard," he said. "And to somehow reduce their efforts simply because of their financial place, it just seems wrong to me."
Voight, however, doesn't agree that prioritizing scholarships to low- and middle-income students would penalize high-income students.
"They have resources to pay for college," she said, while "too many low-income students are being priced out of higher education because of those financial aid dollars not being made available to them."
Whitaker said the university is taking steps to address gaps with programs like the newly released Alabama Advantage program, which covers in-state tuition for federal Pell Grant recipients after factoring in other scholarships and grants. Students need to enroll full-time and maintain a GPA of at least 2.0 to qualify.
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is one of the six flagships the study found to be affordable for low-income students. It's also affordable for independent students with dependents, and nearly affordable for independent students without dependents. While it's not affordable for middle-income students, the amount of unmet need for those students is relatively small ($3,523) compared to other flagships.
Rachelle Feldman, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid at the university, said Chapel Hill's affordability is due to its culture.
"The campus is very committed to its public nature," Feldman said. The annual cost of attendance is $23,734, and the Carolina Covenant program at the university commits to meeting the full needs of students whose families' incomes are below 200 percent of the poverty line.
"Our campus would be worse off without these students," she said.
The program covers items beyond tuition, like room and board, books and healthcare if the student requires it. The university relies on private funding and fundraising efforts, as well as state and federal aid, to keep the program running, Feldman said, though she noted it's a challenge.
The report also highlights the academic and personal support -- like mentoring, social events and business etiquette -- that is offered to students in the program, which Feldman said is a "key part."
Thirteen percent of undergraduates at the university are part of the Covenant program. Those with financial need had a six-year graduation rate for the 2012 cohort of 88.7 percent, slightly below those without financial need in the same cohort, who had a six-year graduation rate of 91.5 percent.
However, enrollment of federal Pell Grant recipients at the university is low compared to the national average of "very selective" four-year institutions. That average is 30 percent, while the campus has a Pell enrollment rate of 21 percent.
Feldman said the university is "need-blind" in the admissions process, but it has goals to increase its Pell enrollment rate over time through outreach with various programs like the Carolina College Advising Corps, which places recent graduates as college advisers in certain high schools.
Voight said increasing equity is the responsibility of both institutions and states. Most states' funding for public higher education has yet to rebound from the Great Recession, which triggered tuition hikes and reliance on out-of-state or international students to balance budgets.
Whitaker said the University of Alabama's low Pell enrollment rate (roughly 17 percent) is probably a result of the institution's focus on out-of-state recruiting. The college is now "correcting" that trend with the Alabama Advantage program, he said.
To make a full correction, Voight said universities need to look at their decisions on how to spend aid funds, states need to increase funding levels and the federal investment in Pell Grants needs to increase. Flagships also need to examine admissions policies, like early decision and legacy preference, to ensure equitable access for low-income students.
"We hope that institutions will take a look at these findings with respect to both affordability and accessibility and … reexamine themselves through an equity lens," she said.
Jess Davidson remembers when the young woman leading her first-year college orientation in 2012 slipped her a sticky note
On it was a list of fraternities she instructed Davidson, who is now executive director of End Rape on Campus, a national survivor advocacy organization, to avoid. The fraternity chapters on this list were the most likely to throw parties on campus, particularly in the first few weeks of the academic year when women are most at risk for sexual assault. In hushed tones, the orientation leader told Davidson to pass on the note to other female students.
This clandestine warning was likely not the best method for teaching young women about the phenomenon on college campuses known nationally as "the Red Zone," the first six to eight weeks of the semester when more sexual assaults take place than at any other time in the year. First-year female students who are often still in their late teens and have not yet developed a social network on campus are most likely to be victimized during this time.
While many colleges have programs that educate students about the Red Zone and how to avoid it, some institutions offer ineffective, "fluffy" programs that oversimplify the issue and fail to address the underlying culture that facilitates sexual violence on campus. Sexual assault prevention activists said college administrators must do more than just make students aware of the Red Zone.
"We really see a lack of complex and comprehensive prevention curricula," Davidson said. "We often see it tied to a single session during orientation and … really quickly delivered."
Research generally identifies the Red Zone as the period of weeks lasting roughly until the Thanksgiving break, with sexual assaults skyrocketing in September and October. The term originated in the 1988 book, "I Never Called It Rape," which was largely an overview of a national study of date rape. The author of the book, Robin Warshaw, wrote that freshmen women were in the "Red Zone of danger" and far more likely to be raped as soon as they moved on to campus.
A U.S. Department of Justice study of nine colleges found that 629 sexual assaults occurred among first-year students in September and October 2014, which was more than the assaults that occurred during the next four months combined, when 521 sex assaults were reported by first-year students.
The timing of these incidents is not coincidental, the Red Zone timeframe coincides with the countless parties celebrating students' return to campus. Greek organizations also typically hold their "rush" events for students interested in joining fraternities and sororities during the first couple of months of the semester.
Freshmen are particularly vulnerable because they are unfamiliar with the campus, including where and to whom to report a sexual assault, Davidson said.
Colleges sometimes teach students to intervene when they see a scenario that could lead to sexual violence, for instance when they see a visibly drunk female freshman at a party being led away by a stranger. But many first-year students can be too scared to intervene or may not know how to assist.
That's where "bystander intervention training" is supposed to come in. Colleges use popular programs such as Green Dot, in which students learn the obstacles stopping them from stepping in when they see potential violence, and how to overcome those barriers. They receive lessons on how to diffuse a situation and distract a perpetrator of a possible sex crime and then seek help from someone, such as a bartender, a police officer or another peer, to resolve the situation.
The techniques the program teaches can also be more proactive, such as talking about bystander intervention on social media. A study of three campuses published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the institution that used Green Dot had 17 percent fewer cases of interpersonal violence compared to the two colleges that had no bystander intervention training. A representative from Green Dot did not respond to a request for comment.
Not every college has such comprehensive training, however, and some training does not address some of the more pervasive problems that result in sexual assaults, said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, which consults with colleges and universities.
College officials often focus on warning students about the dangers of drinking too much or caution them to stay away from parties where they could be sexually abused. This puts the onus to prevent sexual assault on the victim, which is not helpful, Carter said.
"They are treating the symptom and not the disease," Carter said.
Delaying the "rush" period on college campuses, which would allow students time to develop supportive social networks, or implementing other policy changes targeting parties during the Red Zone could lead to less sexual violence, but these solutions have largely not been studied, Carter said.
Pennsylvania State University moved the rush period on its campus from fall to the spring semester after a fraternity pledge died in a hazing incident. It was an attempt by the university to limit alcohol abuse at Greek events, where sexual assaults can occur.
Although the concept of the Red Zone is widely recognized, researchers haven't yet studied what works in mitigating it. Academics interested in the topic of campus sexual assault often focus more on producing studies that support existing sexual assault data -- such as the widely cited statistic that 1 in 4 undergraduate women are sexually assaulted during their time on campus -- often dismissed as exaggerations, Carter said.
College have tried outright bans on certain events and groups in an attempt to slow sexual assaults, specifically around the Red Zone. Harvard University established a policy restricting a student belonging to a single-gender organization -- fraternities, sororities, and the all-male final clubs, whose members were accused of misogynistic and sexually violent behavior -- from holding a leadership position in a university-affiliated group or athletics team.
"I don't necessarily think you have to approach it like Harvard," Carter said. "That's certainly not necessary to accomplish what you want. To address this, you're looking at the structure of those organizations. And that faces a lot of resistance."
The University of New Mexico launched a campaign called "Reclaim the Red" two years ago. It's largely a social media campaign that encourages students and staff to share the #ReclaimTheRed hashtag to make students aware of the existence of the Red Zone, said Lisa Lindquist, director of the LoboRESPECT Advocacy Center.
She said the university has seen an increase in reports of sexual violence since making sexual assault and bystander intervention training mandatory for all incoming students. The rise in reports means students feel more comfortable telling administrators about their experiences, she said.
Lindquist said students often don't understand consent when they arrive on campus.
"Then you add alcohol or other substances to that, when you're experimenting with who you are, when you're first coming into school, obviously that has an impact on what consent looks like."
Ohio University makes visible attempts to combat the Red Zone by hanging banners across campus stating that the university supports sexual assault survivors. Some of the banners have messages targeting the Red Zone, said Kimberly Castor, director of the university's Survivor Advocacy Program.
The banners were a public information campaign devised by the Student Senate on campus, Castor said. The university has also held art exhibits centered on sexual violence.
Castor said one of the most effective training programs provided by representatives of the Office of the Dean of Students involves an annual talk during freshman orientation aptly named "the pizza talk." The presenter compares consent to a pizza and uses it as a metaphor for personal agency, reminding students that just because a person orders a pizza once, she may not want to order it again, or may not want the same toppings. But under no circumstances should anyone ever be forced to eat the pizza, Castor said.
Castor said learning about the Red Zone and sexual assaults early in their college careers can empower students. She recalled when some students hung sexist banners on housing near campus, including one that read "You taught her to walk, we'll teach her to ride." Sorority members who had gotten the sexual assault awareness training posted a banner with a rebuttal: "You taught her to be fearful, we'll teach her to deserve better."
"It's good to see our students responding," Castor said
Lydia Ramlo, president of the Student Senate, said her recollection of the training she received as a freshman through an online module about the intersection of alcohol and sexual assault, is "foggy." She used her role as a student leader to push for the banners that promoted support for survivors around the campus and for the university to adopt a safety application for mobile devices. The app, Bobcat Safe, features a "walk with a friend" tool students can use to track their friends' whereabouts if they leave a party alone.
Despite the increased focus on campus sexual assaults in general, and those that occur in the Red Zone in particular, getting students to pay attention to the problem and take the recommended precautions and awareness training seriously can still be challenging, Ramlo said.
"It's a really hard conversation, and there's no clear answer," she said. "You can't force people in a room to listen who don't want to soak in that information. There's the whole metaphor of you lead a horse to water."