Q&A: JKCF Dissertation Fellow Kelly Ochs Rosinger

kelly_headshot_2Kelly Ochs Rosinger is a 2014 Dissertation Fellow and research assistant at the University of Georgia. She recently co-authored an article for The Review of Higher Education that deals with the issue of socioeconomic diversity in selective private colleges. Findings show that “all other factors being equal, private institutions that are historically embedded in elite status maintain less socioeconomic diversity,” while those with greater diversity seem to correlate with “generous financial-aid efforts and test-optional admissions policies.”

Read the abstract to Kelly’s article below, and hear from her directly in the following Q&A.

Title: Socioeconomic Diversity in Selective Private Colleges: An Organizational Analysis
Publication: The Review of Higher Education
Authors: James C. Hearn, Kelly Ochs Rosinger

Relatively few students in selective colleges come from disadvantaged backgrounds, so the rewards of attending such schools go mainly to those already advantaged from birth. There is substantial variation in those colleges’ socioeconomic composition, however. Some selective private institutions proportionately enroll five times as many lower-SES students as others. What drives this variation? Longitudinal analyses presented here suggest that, all other factors being equal, private institutions that are historically embedded in elite status maintain less socioeconomic diversity. Conversely, generous financial-aid efforts and test-optional admissions policies appear to contribute to institutions achieving greater SES diversity. The findings suggest several research and policy implications.

You hold a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations, and a master’s degree in public administration and policy. What eventually drew you to obtaining a Ph.D. in higher education?

While I was an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill, I was an editor and reporter at The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper. This experience introduced me to higher education beyond my limited experience as a student. Then, as a senior I took a course on college admissions in which I explored the public’s interest in university decisions about which students would be admitted and how their education would be funded. I moved to Athens, GA, when I graduated to work as an admissions counselor and assistant director of admissions at the University of Georgia (UGA). As I helped students navigate the admissions process, I became interested in the policies that shaped students’ pathways to college and decided to pursue a master’s degree in public administration and policy while continuing my work in the admissions office. With the background in economic policy analysis that I gained in the M.P.A. program, I decided to pursue my Ph.D. full time at UGA’s Institute of Higher Education to continue studying how policies shape opportunities for students. At the Institute of Higher Education, I collaborate with faculty on research projects that consider how federal, state, and institutional policies affect students and universities.

Getting into the paper, were you surprised by anything you found concerning socioeconomic diversity in private colleges?

The thing that surprised me most in doing this research was the variation in socioeconomic diversity within selective private colleges. At some colleges in our analysis, one in four or one in five students who enrolled received the federal Pell grant, which is directed toward low-income students. At other institutions, fewer than one in ten students received the Pell grant. These clear differences prompted us to ask how pricing, admissions policies, organizational characteristics, and institutional resources contributed to these differences in socioeconomic diversity among colleges in this elite private sector. In this project, we wanted to know what factors associated with colleges themselves contributed to the different levels of socioeconomic diversity that we observed.

According to the American Psychological Association, low SES (socioeconomic status) negatively affects our society as a whole. Can something similar be said about having fewer low-SES students enrolled in selective universities?

There is a lot of research that demonstrates the role that the elite private college sector plays in shaping students’ future opportunities. Attending a selective college is associated with a number of benefits including higher future earnings for low-income students, greater social status and access to more selective graduate programs. As Bowen, Kurzweil, and Tobin noted in their influential 2005 book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, “The path to many positions of power and wealth in this country winds its way through these selective colleges and universities.” These institutions are also typically wealthier and have more resources to direct toward students. Because of the opportunities associated with attendance at selective colleges – particularly for low-income students – it is important to understand what organizational characteristics promote socioeconomic diversity.

From what you have found, what is the single most beneficial tool or practice universities can utilize to fix this issue?

The most important thing I’ve learned from this project and other research I have done is that there is not one solution to increasing access to higher education. As this project demonstrated, institutional pricing and admissions policies influence socioeconomic diversity. These are factors that institutions have at least some control over, such as tuition, aid, and policies that reduce students’ reliance on loans to finance education or that de-emphasize (but not necessarily eliminate) standardized test scores in the admissions process. Our research demonstrates that institutions can make strategic decisions to provide high-achieving, low-income students with greater opportunities to enroll in the selective private college sector. However, a number of factors over which institutions have no control or cannot readily change – such as endowment holdings, geographic location, when an institution was founded, and type of institution (for example, research universities or baccalaureate colleges) – also shape socioeconomic diversity. In these cases, colleges may need to be particularly aware of what strategic efforts they can make to expand access.

What similar projects have you undertaken or will you undertake that deal with the issue of socioeconomic diversity on college campuses?

This project has laid the foundation for other studies that evaluate how innovations in institutional admissions and financial aid policies affect students and institutions. In another paper that is in press at Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Andrew Belasco, myself, and Jim Hearn examined the test-optional movement at selective liberal arts colleges, finding that eliminating standardized test scores from admissions consideration at this group of institutions as a whole has not led to higher levels of low-income or minority student enrollment. My colleagues and I also are exploring the adoption of financial aid programs that eliminate loans from financial aid awards for some or all students. In this project, we consider how the eligibility requirements of no-loan programs shape enrollment outcomes. By examining institutional innovations in admissions and aid policies in more detail, we are able to get a better picture of what organizational strategies are associated with expanded opportunities for underrepresented students in higher education.

How does this research relate to the work for which you were awarded a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Dissertation Fellowship?

My dissertation research, which is supported by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, examines how a recent federal policy efforts to simplify information in financial aid award notifications about college costs and options for paying these costs affect enrollment and borrowing decisions. I pay particularly close attention in this research to low-income students who face the greatest informational barriers regarding costs and aid. The common theme in my research is a consideration of what policies and practices promote an equitable higher education system in which high-achieving low-income students have similar college opportunities as their higher-income peers.